The nuts and bolts of traveling in Mother Russia

     (63 rubles = $1; 70 rubles = 1 euro)

cs russia

     I haven’t had much Couchsurfing luck in Russia. (Couchsurfing as a concept might be on the wane.) When I search for a host, I filter out those under 30 and those who haven’t logged in within a month because it seems a waste of time, but then what happens is when I create a public trip for anyone to respond, it’s usually someone under 30.
     I had great Couchsurfing experiences with people who offered to host me in Volgograd (left) and Rostov-on-Don (center) and then in Yekaterinburg it was fun to hang out with a student (right) who wanted to meet and practice English. Without that girl, I never would have known that I could get sea buckthorn juice in Russia.
     Even if you think to yourself, ahh, I’m tired, I don’t feel like talking much, I’m not in the mood to hang out, I discover that when I am with the local person, I find all kinds of things I want to talk about and I learn a lot more about the country, which is the whole point of Couchsurfing.


50 euro note

     This is a very clean 50-euro note that was refused by money changers because there is that stamp blemish you see. They can be very picky in Russia. You need to bring only the best notes you have. Of course, they think nothing of giving you ratty old ruble notes.


     I am a big fan of VTB Bank ATMs for two reasons: the maximum amount you can take out is high, 100,000 rubles, and they offer you small banknotes. The most common bank, Sberbank, only gives a 5000 ruble maximum on (foreign?) debit cards and then they give you a 5000 ruble note, which is not fun to try and break. I had one bank tell me with a straight face that it is against Russian law for them to give small change.
che smart phone

     SIM cards are cheap. (Are USA and Japan the only two horrible countries for mobile data? In Switzerland you can’t buy a SIM card if you are a foreigner; maybe you can rent.) I pay 500 rubles a month for 5GB of data and more minutes of SMS and calling than I will ever use, and that is just a basic plan. Better deals are sure to be had.


     Registering with the police can be a mess. When you enter Russia you should consider staying at a well-established hostel or hotel for the first two days just to make sure you are registered. Hostels and hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg are used to the charade and can get you the paper you need quickly and maybe for free. I have stayed in places away from borders in private homes or in newly-opened hostels and it can take a while to get the paper—and you need the paper when you try to leave the country.
     It’s happened that I just hand my passport over and I get the registration paper back in an hour. It’s happened that I had to drag my Airbnb host to the post office for an hour after getting photocopies of the main passport page, the visa page, and the migration paper, costing a nominal 250 rubles, as I recall. Some hotels won’t let you stay if you haven’t registered already, depending on when you entered Russia , even if it is a paid reservation.
     My registration paper has been replaced several times by hotels, which doesn’t make sense. I have had hotels photocopy every single page of my large passport, which is also inexplicable. Often reception staff look relieved when I say I don’t need to be registered or re-registered.
bla bla driver altai

     My blablacar driver and his wife. We went through the Altai Mountains from Gorno-Altaisk to Kosh-Agach, the last town before Mongolia. Blablacar really saved me on that trip. Hitchhiking might have been possible, but it was rainy, and most cars were packed with vacationers. Only once did we nearly die when he passed five cars and two trucks on a curve. Six or seven hours of this excitement was 800 rubles.


     Blablacar (rideshare) is tricky to get right, but it’s nearly always the cheapest way to travel in Russia. I can’t get them to stop sending me notifications and emails in French. You need to use the version of the website for the country you are in. You will see some listings in Russia on the UK website, but the real action for Russia is on blablacar.ru and then you have to use Google Translate to make sense of it all. (It’s built in on Chrome browsers.) I write to drivers in Russian using Google Translate. Only some have spoken a little English. I wish there were more female (i.e. mellow) drivers.
     In Siberia there is a sudden increase in the amount of Japanese cars on the roads, and I don’t mean made in Japan, I mean imported from Japan: right hand drive. On blablacar I try to avoid young drivers and right hand cars in bad weather. You haven’t lived until you’re in a car with a hotshot young punk trying to pass blind in the rain on a bad road in a right-hand-drive car.
novosibirsk room

     My bizarre four-bed(!) room in Novosibirsk. 800 rubles.


     Airbnb is no less tricky, and the lack of customer service on any of these websites is maddening. (How many billions do they have to make before they hire a customer service team in the Philippines?) Russia has a fair share of zombie listings, some of them with automatic bookings. If you book and it turns out to be inactive, you will wait many days to try and get it straightened out while Airbnb keeps pumping out nonsense like, “Try contacting your host. 95% of all problems can be solved through direct communication.”
     Also, I think Airbnb has a minimum threshold of $10, so even if you see a listing for $5, say, you can bet you are the first to try and book it. And then they use fanciful arithmetic to round up their fees. I can come up with more negativity, but the fact is I still use it a lot. Finding a single room in someone’s home for the same cost as a dorm bed is impossible to turn down. Like Couchsurfing, if you can come up with a host to talk with, you can learn a lot about where you are.
     The great feature about Airbnb that Couchsurfing once had but ditched was the ability to search by map. You can find some very interesting, out-of-the-way listings with that feature. I search by “private room” or even “entire apartment” because hosts make mistakes in their listings that can work in your favor, but too many times hostels cheat and claim a 12-bed room is “private”. Booking.com and hotels.com also have this scourge. Again, most listings on Airbnb will be in Russian and Google Translate…
novosibirsk station

     Novosibirsk train station. Novosibirsk is the third biggest city in Russia. Don’t pretend you knew that! It’s the only place in Siberia I’ve been that I didn’t like.


     Russian Railways has this good English website to show train times, costs, and availability, but keep in mind that all trains in Russia run on Moscow time, as does the website. It can be confusing. Some railway stations in Siberia will have a huge clock on their facade showing the time in Moscow, which is at least four hours earlier.
     This is one reason I prefer the Yandex website (Russian only—the Chrome browser with built-in translation is your friend) which shows everything in local time with bus possibilities and blablacar options, too.
russia sleep train

     See the foot sticking out in the middle? I’m taller than that guy. It’s too hard for me to sleep on overnight trains, so I try and avoid them. I haven’t had good experiences. I’ve been out of my mind and so easily irritable to the point that on a train from Saratov to Samara I lashed out at three Navy sailors for making noise at 3am. One of them was loudly smooching the provodnik (train conductor) in the bunk under me. What I didn’t know was that they were coming home as heroes as dozens and dozens of people greeted the train with balloons, waving flags, crying, celebrating, and pouring drinks on the platform at 8am.


     The best trains I have taken are called firmeny. They are deluxe expresses with comfortable seats in nice, new trains with annoying announcements in the stuffiest British English they could find. The problem is twofold: those trains have dynamic pricing where the cost fluctuates, and you’ll pay significantly more closer to departure. Also, other trains are called firmeny that aren’t exactly the same, and I still can’t tell which is which.
biysk electrichka

     This “electrichka” from Barnaul to Biysk in Siberia was a gem. For some reason electrichkas don’t always show up in the online timetables. The only way I found out about it is by holding up my phone to the station administrator that asked, “Is it true there is only one train a day to Biysk from here?” Again, it’s confusing.


     I can write what specific train I want in Russian with the train number, departure and arrival times, date and class, and then I hold my phone to the window with a message in Russian saying that I would like to be in the middle of the wagon by the window (that isn’t in the sun) facing the direction the train is going and near an electrical outlet (which are usually in the penultimate compartments on both ends.) They usually laugh at this or wave it off, but the very last train ride I had, the woman looked at it closely and gave me exactly what I asked for.
     Twice I have had train ticket people discourage me from buying the cheapest “platskart” ticket—there are two varieties, apparently—on the train because it is in the last car, and they mention something about toilets. I figure they have my interests at heart and I let them sway me.
     There are ticket kiosks in many stations that are severely underutilized. I don’t know why Russians don’t embrace it over standing in line. You can buy tickets or have tickets printed out that were bought online. You can also pick your seat this way. I tried it with my credit card—they don’t take cash, sadly—but I don’t have a PIN code for it, which is a requirement.
russian train map
     I had no idea how many train lines there were before I came to Russia. I assumed there was one main line going east. The clickable map above surprised me; there are lots of choices.
     In my last blog post I said taking the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Siberian train was insane. This is because you can buy tickets as you go along. (I can’t verify whether this is problematic farther east than I have been so far on the main line, Novosibirsk.) I get in a lather about this because Siberia is great for visiting, not for blowing through.
     I may have been harsh. Who am I to rain on your parade? If you want to sit on a train as a seven-day endurance test, go for it.
outdoor center

     This was $8 or $10 for a single room in Krasnaya Polyana where the Olympic alpine events were. I found it on booking.com, which blows chunks all over hotels.com in Russia. There are always serpents in paradise, though, and my room was windowless, meaning it was stuffy and too hard to sleep. I know no one feels sorry for me, but being perpetually tired is a drag.


     The learning curve was steep for me after I flew in to Sochi. First I was surprised to discover that the airport and most of the 2014 Winter Olympic venues were in Adler, a distant suburb by the Abkhazia border. Then I didn’t realize Sochi is 110km (70 miles) in length, technically, and so “Sochi” could mean anywhere, hardly Sochi town. Adler was Sochi. I almost jumped at this listing on Airbnb for a private room for $10 in the middle of Adler town, but it was directly and closely under the flight path of the very busy airport.
     I started in Russia with some rough bus and train rides, not rough in the struggle and strain way, but rough in the I’ve-done-this-too-many-times way and now the ambient noise of life irritates. Incessant cell phone pings drive me nuts. One minibus driver had a noisy radar detector that went off at seemingly every piece of metal we passed, and I had to listen to it for hours and hours over the din of some Eurotrash techno trance crap that played in an endless loop. And yet, I’ve traveled 6000km in Russia, and I’m hitting my stride now. That’s my roundabout point: I’m very pleased I didn’t give up and leave.
     My plans now? I’m taking advantage of my multiple entry visa by dipping down into Mongolia. I expect to nip back up into Russia near Lake Baikal and continue east to Vladivostok—if cell phone pings don’t drive me berserk first.
     The next blog posts won’t be as boring as this one. I already have a good story about hitchhiking to the Mongolian border and Russian immigration not letting it go that I’ve yet to be married nor have kids.
     Special thanks to Daniel of Eurasia Overland for answering my many, many questions.
yekaterinburg metro

     LOVE the metro everywhere in Russia. This is Yekaterinburg, where I visited every station just because I was so entranced by the variety.


     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+.

Dispelling the myths of traveling in Russia

     Note: I’m slow to put up blog posts, but quick to toss up some non-boring photos on my Instagram.

samara sunset

     Ah yes, here it is, the classic scene at sunset of the boy trying to kiss the girl as she desperately squirms away. Timeless.


     Look, this is a little long and I’m not going to apologize for it. You try spending a month in Russia and have only a little to say. Yes, I’m challenging you. Please come. It’s lonely here. In over a month of traveling I have yet to see a single foreign backpacker. Not one!
sochi lifeguard

     This lifeguard in Sochi on the Black Sea could care less how many people are drowning behind him.


sochi 3rd place

     The guy taking this photo implored me to stand on the 1st place podium, but it wouldn’t have felt right.


motherland calls

     It was worth going to Volgograd just for this statue, The Motherland Calls, and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve always wanted to see it. The sword alone is 33 meters (110 feet) long. It was the tallest statue in the world when it was built, now it is the tallest freestanding non-religious statue in the world. So there.


     Nearly everything I thought I knew about Russia has been the opposite. This is my fourth time here; you’d think I know a thing or two by now, but it’s my first time getting out of the Moscow and St.Petersburg orbits, so it feels very fresh to me.
     I expected the highlights of Russia were going to be in the so-called heartland, which is why I made the route I did before turning east: Sochi/Krasnaya Polyana, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Volgograd, Samara, and Kazan.
     Those middle four are some seriously run-down towns. Kazan is easily the most interesting, but the competition isn’t fierce. Krasnodar has but one beautiful street. Volgograd has the fabulous statue, The Motherland Calls, and Samara has some cool old wooden houses in extreme disrepair, but the whole Volga region is elusive in charm when you back away from the river running through them. (I am open to criticism on this. Am I measuring towns by their landscaping, shallow aesthetics and fleeting impressions?)
samara old house

     One of many old wooden houses scattered around Samara that are usually tucked away behind head-high weeds.


     It’s the places I thought I’d just blow through eastward that were the most interesting: Ufa, Chelyabinsk, Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, and if it ever stops raining here, maybe Novosibirsk. They all seem much wealthier, happening, dynamic, and, by coincidence, the girls seem to wear less and less clothing. More than once I have seen women wear—I’m hesitant to call them clothes—they are more like sheer pieces of fabric like those useless see-through curtains that are between the window and the real curtains, draped over their head. To be sure, Russian women like their sheer clothes. I feel like I am wearing x-ray glasses. Maybe If I lived in a frigid place most of the year, I’d be wearing 10% opaque curtains, too.
     What was I talking about again? Anyway, let me counter some popular opinions:
     Myth: Taking the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian Railway is a great way to see the whole country.
     Reality: This is insane. That’s like saying driving (highway) I-5 all in one go is a great way to see California. I mention this in passing now because my next blog post will be all practical information and why this is an expensive, bad idea.
samara info

samara info


     Myth: Russians are aggressive, hot-tempered, stern, unfriendly people you practically have to pay to smile.
     Reality: I keep saying this and I know no one believes me, but the word for Russian people is gentle. I’m sticking with it. Three quick anecdotes:
     Quick anecdote #1: In the Samara train station there is a tourist information booth. It’s incredible it exists. A tourist will come “From time to time” I was told by this kind man. He spoke a meticulous, halting English, and was beyond pleased to be able to help a native English speaker. (The first thing I always ask is if I can drink the tap water.)
     We had a long conversation and as I was about to go, he asked if he could recite a poem. This caught me off guard. He said, “It’s from Cole Porter.”
          What is this thing called love?
          This funny thing called love?
          Just who can solve its mystery?
          Why should it make a fool of me?

     Imagine that happening in Union Station in Los Angeles for a Russian tourist. You can’t. It’s unbelievable.
     Quick anecdote #2: I had a train that arrived at 10pm in Saratov and I wanted to take an 11pm train onward, but the station was crowded and the number I pulled for my turn at the ticket window was 100 behind, meaning I’d never make it. I asked the train station information woman in the main hall what I could do, and she hopped out of her chair, closed her booth, and took me to a ticket counter to get a cashier to help me. So kind! Provodniks (conductors) on the trains, every story I read they are always surly or, at best, aloof, but I’ve never had a sour or unhelpful one.
     Quick anecdote #3: I was in a distant suburb of Yekaterinburg and I stepped into a small “produkty” (mini-market). I was starving, and they had some ready-made sandwiches behind a case that for some reason they couldn’t sell. I kept walking around the store to see what they had. Seeing my frustration, the cashier closed her register, the only one in the store, and, taking my hand, led me around the aisles showing me what I could eat.
     After communicating that I couldn’t heat this nor did I have hot water for that, she brought me to the front of the store, still hand in hand, and through the window pointed out nearby restaurants. Meanwhile, the people waiting at her register were patiently watching this, maybe thinking I was mentally disabled.
i am in chocolate

     This was right on the Abkhazia-Russia border. Free business name for you entrepreneurs out there. You’re welcome.


     People are gentle! They don’t jaywalk. Cars stops for pedestrians (I can hear Russians saying, “We do?”) When they see you are a distant traveler, they are kind and welcoming, often. I am going to go out on a limb and also say men respect women more than most places. I never see guys catcall girls, and I doubt my lack of Russian prevents me from really hearing what’s going on.
pants plants

     “Pants Plants”, another FREE business idea from The Dromomaniac!


     Myth: Russians don’t speak English.
     Reality: This is actually true, few speak English, but many people are quick to whip out their phones and use Google Translate (works offline, too) and are patient. I stayed at a place in Abkhazia where it was tough to communicate, but the owner managed to say that I should wait for two girls from St. Petersburg to arrive, which is shorthand for “it’s our best chance” as St. Petersburg is far and away the most cosmopolitan of Russian cities.
     I take full responsibility for not being a diligent student of Russian, but how can I tear myself away from Jiminy Glick interviewing Steve Martin?
vodka store

     This was a good-sized supermarket, OK, but this much vodka?! This says a lot. It reminded me of the dried ham aisle in Spain and the salsa aisle in Texas.


     Myth: Russia is expensive.
     Reality: Russia was expensive. For years the exchange rate hovered at 30-35 rubles to the dollar, but now it is 63 rubles = $1 (70 rubles = 1 euro) which, of course, makes a huge difference. I wouldn’t travel the length of the country at the old exchange rate.
     Here are some typical costs:
Local bus ticket: 18-25 rubles
Shawarma: 120-150 rubles
Gas: 32 rubles a liter
Hostels: always possible to find a bed for 400-600 rubles
Water: 20-25 rubles for 1.5 liters (about half the time tap water is potable.)
Bananas: often 60-65 rubles a kg.
boris and me

     Boris and I were comparing tans until security threw me out.


     Myth: Boris Yeltsin is remembered and denounced in Russia as a bumbling fool.
     Reality: In his hometown of Yekaterinburg, at least, he appears to be beloved. There is a very impressive Yeltsin Center where I spent hours going over his legacy. It may lean towards hagiography, but the 1990s were tough, nearly impossible times in Russia.
     What is the memory of Boris Yeltsin in the west? It’s probably standing on the tank as much as the drinking, presiding over the economic downturn, the subsequent lower status of Russia in the world after the breakup of the Soviet Union, mistrust of democracy and change—all of which begat Putin.
     Did you know there is a band from Missouri called “Somebody Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin”? This is their best song, Pangea.
ussr mural

     I am a sucker for this stuff. I love all the patriotic Soviet mosaics, murals and statues.


     Myth: You cross the mighty Ural Mountains and—voila! You are in Asia with its endless taiga of birch forests.
     Reality: There are no mountains that I saw, no grand pass where you reach a summit and suddenly you are in Asia. I didn’t even notice a change in elevation. I am still waiting for the taiga. I see lots of beautiful wildflowers, pretty wooden homes in old villages, patches of forest, but mostly swampy, boggy, fallow land. My hunch is that if it exists, it is going to be on the other side of Lake Baikal.
siberia blabla

     The view when you first “enter” Siberia. Could be lots of places. This was my blablacar ride share. I am eager to get out of the urban landscape. By now I have been in 11 of Russia’s 12 largest cities. Nizhny Novgorod, stop trying to hide. You WILL be visited!


victory subway

     I love juxtapositions of new and old, sacred and profane, apples and oranges. Above is an enormous Soviet-era “victory” star. Below is an American fast food chain that has exploded in Russia, even more than KFC, Burger King, and McDonald’s. This is in Chelyabinsk. You may not know Chelyabinsk, but you might recall the meteor that crashed down a few years ago in Russia. That was near Chelyabinsk.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     The next blog post is all about practical information, but I’ll say a quick thing about flights.
     To minimize backtracking I flew into Sochi on the Black Sea coast, but the cheapest flights, if coming from the west, are probably on Pegasus via Istanbul (the Asian-side airport) to Krasnodar. flydubai flies to Yekaterinburg; that could be an interesting backdoor to Siberia. They also go to Samara and Rostov-on-Don. My intention is to go to Vladivostok and then fly back across the whole country to St. Petersburg, and this should cost less than $250 for a 9+ hour flight. Russia is quite reasonable. Last year I flew from St. Petersburg to Bulgaria for not much more than $100 one way, and that’s not a short flight either.
     Sochi might not have been the best place to start, but I loved all the horror stories of the Olympics preparation as epitomized by the hashtag, #sochiproblems, and was curious to see it. Now that the Olympics are over, there is some excellent infrastructure, but some serious white elephant facilities that look ridiculous next to the Black Sea—–which is a ridiculous place to have winter Olympics anyway.
tyumen water skiing

     This is the first city I came to in Siberia, Tyumen, and was surprised to see water skiing. It’s the oldest city in Siberia, 430 this year, and has the highest GDP of any town in Russia, I read. It should be the farthest north I will get in Siberia, so probably not much frozen tundra on this trip.


     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+.

Traveling in the Phantom Republic of Abkhazia

abkhazia towel

     I am not a big souvenir guy since I have to carry everything around that I buy or spend a lot to mail it home, but this towel buckled me.


     Say you’re Boris from Smolensk. You work hard at the petrochemical kombinat, provide for your lovely wife, Svetlana—why is every other woman in Russia named Svetlana?—and kids, and you want to take your precious summer vacation by the sea. Where do you go?
     With the ruble in its present dismal condition, western Europe is out. Traditionally cheaper destinations like Turkey and Egypt are out because of recent tensions involving downed planes. Crimea is now Russian, but until “Putin’s Bridge” gets built connecting it to mainland Russia, you have to fly in and out to avoid Ukraine. Sochi on the Black Sea is the next logical choice, but why go there when you can nip over the border to the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia? Same coast, more exotic, and cheaper.
     I learned all this when I set foot in Gagra, the first resort about an hour over the border, which is packed with Russians. Gagra is hardly a town in the civic sense as the entire length of it caters to tourists and nearly every home advertises rooms for rent, but no one cares, especially Boris.
gagra beach

     The beach in Gagra isn’t packed because it’s so long and spread out. Not much sand to be found. The water either had jellyfish or a lot of scum floating on top, but a Russian couple I told this to looked me up and down and gave me the “What a wimp!” look.


waterfall car

     This is genius. The car, hats and sword have nothing to do with anything, but park this where tourists are, charge less than a buck, and few can resist.


     I had a taste of mass Russian tourism when I went to Lake Ritsa on an “excursion”, they call it. Everyone gets packed into vans and whole convoys careen up the mountain. By having the front seat I earned the driver’s scorn for wearing a seat belt. He kept scolding me until he tired of my sissiness.
     I naively thought the whole shebang was just going to be transport, but it turned out to be a Chinese-style mess with coordinated stops to buy honey, alcohol, and souvenirs, and to pose with endangered animals in chains. Also, these kinds of excursions highlight that Russians love loudness. If there is a beautiful place next to a lake or river, they want Eurotrash dance music blasting to ruin the scene.
     The payoff was worth it, though. The water is a special color this time of year as you can see in this short video here if it doesn’t show up below:

zipline ritsa

     A dude ziplining across the rushing river—and getting stuck. He had done something wrong (what can you do wrong?) and the guys running it were in a tizzy.


     Russians had said to me that Abkhazia was like Russia twenty years ago with its crumbling infrastructure. That’s the attraction for a lot of people in this day and age of globalization, including me. It is a nice change of pace to see few western products in Abkhazia; I can only think of soft drinks, snacks and candy. It seems regulation-less in a libertarian dream. People smoke indoors. Young punks race around town with impunity.
downtown sukhumi

     Sleepy downtown Sukhumi, the capital, with a burned out building in the background. It’s funny to see the police self-importantly run their sirens and shuttle dignitaries around on the empty streets. There are hardly any stop lights. Only 250,000 people live in the whole country.


sukhumi wreck

     This is one of two concrete wrecks built on the water. During hot afternoons I sat with a cold drink and did some breeze receiving while I typed out award-losing blog posts.


     Speaking of the waterfront,this is an interesting article about Abkhazia’s predicament being Russia’s benefactor. The Russians have been eyeing the long coastline of Abkhazia for development, which the Abkhazians are trying to avoid, but good luck with that when you need Russia to cover half your budget. There is video of a lawyer’s car being blown up right on the popular promenade where locals congregate every night. He had been trying to protect the coastline.
abkhazia spices

     Spices used to spell out stuff.


     In Sukhumi there’s a big, popular sprawling restaurant called Nartaa right across from the sea where I met an Uzbek waiter named Rams. He had been studying in Latvia and was lamenting his missed chance in getting a visa for USA. He said studying in an EU country is a pipeline for tons of Uzbeks to get American visas. He said all kinds of things that didn’t make sense, and he couldn’t articulate why he wanted to go to USA so badly except that a friend of his was there and he was making $7 an hour in a restaurant, which was all he needed to hear.
     I am always a wet blanket in these conversations to temper dizzying ideas about America being a yellow brick road to riches. I reminded him that you have to pay for accommodation and so on, but he said that the restaurant had his friend sleep somewhere for free and he ate in the restaurant. He claimed there were $500 round-trip flights from Tashkent to New York. I challenged this but he was adamant.
     Somehow people like this manage, it seems. Who knows? Maybe people who put their heads down and do what they have to do to make some money succeed, but the problem is that the people who don’t succeed aren’t honest about it to the newcomers out of shame, and the cycle perpetuates.
khachapur

     The khachapur at Nartaa. This was about a dollar.


kvas tanks

     Kvas tanks. Kvas is a very popular fermented beverage across the whole former Soviet Union. Not a fan.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION: (63 rubles=$1)
     In a previous blog post I wrote about entering Abkhazia without a visa, but it may be easier to enter from the Georgian side.
     Airbnb has hundreds of listings for Abkhazia, believe it or not. Like in Russia, sometimes hosts will want you to make contact with them through the site, but pay in person. Also, like I wrote before, if I do pay through the site, I only book the first night through Airbnb and then ask the host how much if I pay in person. In Sukhumi I paid 10 euros (740 rubles) on the site and then in person, 500.
     Only rubles are used in Abkhazia, though there are many places to change dollars and euros. I saw plenty of ATMs, too, but I am not sure if they will work with international cards. I doubt it.
     Getting around the main places in Abkhazia is easy. Sukhumi to the border (2-3 hours) is 150 rubles in a bus and 200 in a van. Getting around town is about 10 rubles for a bus and 15-20 in a marshrutka, which is a smaller van or minibus.
abkhazia border

     Leaving Abkhazia to go back to Russia. It felt like a return to civilization, which was bittersweet.


     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+.

Short story: Mountain Ambush in Vietnam, 1992

     Greetings from Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Abkhazia is a breakaway republic with no American diplomatic presence as I explained in my previous, award-losing blog post. Having to be extra paranoid about not losing my passport reminded me of visiting Vietnam in 1992, the high water mark for paranoia. The problem of not having a U.S. consulate, means, in practical terms, if I lost my passport, I would be in serious trouble with no simple, quick or inexpensive way to get out of the country.
     In 2016, I can at least communicate problems immediately via the internet, but back then, I was on my own. No consulate was one worry. Since this was pre-ATM, everyone traveled with travelers checks, but those couldn’t be used in Vietnam either. No debit cards, no credit cards, no cell phones, crazy-expensive international phone calls—–$3-4 a minute to USA, often—–and no one to turn to.

vietnam operation

     My feet went into a couple of sea urchins and I had to have a “small operation”. Vietnam was memorable, to be sure.


     The short story:
     In a country lacking any solid travel information (pre-Lonely Planet, too) the one thing all travelers in Vietnam knew was to go to the Prince Hotel in Saigon to arrange transport. When you had enough people to fill a van, you’d make a week-long trip up north. We were warned that the driver would only drive during the day because the night was unsafe. The days could be plenty unsafe, too, we discovered, when we came upon a gruesome crime scene.
     There had been an ambush on a truck on a mountain curve. Three were dead. Two lay under woven bamboo mats, but the third, the driver, was left intact, which was hanging upside down from the open door of the truck. His body had twisted as he fell out and was stuck. A long, wide trail of blood stained the road.
     It had very recently happened, we could see. Someone explained that the truck had just delivered a load of cement, and the attackers knew they had cash on them. Someone in our group asked how much cash, based on what a truckload of cement goes for.
     “About $200.”
     I had $800 in my pocket. We all had lots of cash. There was no other way to travel in Vietnam in 1992.
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Crossing the Russia-Abkhazia border without a visa

     I wanted to do it the right way.
     The right way is to go to the website for the government of Abkhazia and send an application from a buggy Word doc, then pray and hope that in seven business days they can produce a one-sentence letter I take to the border and get a visa. I wanted to go sooner—the next day—and a woman in my hotel said she heard of a French guy that managed to go through without it.
     Wait, what’s an Abkhazia? Abkhazia is a breakaway republic from the Republic of Georgia on the Black Sea. The only countries that recognize it are Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru, I believe. (Tried in vain to find the Nauru consulate here in the capital, Sukhumi.)

conifa

     Three weeks ago was the finals for the soccer World Cup of Unrecognized Nations in Abkhazia. It kills me I missed it. This Roads and Kingdoms article is a nice story.


     My hotel in Sochi was only five km from the Abkhazia border so I went to see what I could find out. I approached a police depot at the border and asked the first guy I saw, “Do you speak English?”
     “No,” he said firmly.
     I’ve got to stop asking this. Everyone says no, even if they speak enough. I could communicate in Russian that tomorrow I wanted to go to Abkhazia and I handed him my passport. He opened it, saw that I was from California, and his demeanor brightened. “California,” he smiled, and started to sing the song, “Californication.”
     Not what I was expecting! He took a break behind the guard post and I ended up spending close to an hour with the guy. We used Google Translate on his phone—I downloaded it immediately that night; it’s a godsend—and I learned all I needed to know about crossing the border. He was a funny guy with no filter and up for a chat.
     I learned that the Russians were OK with me trying to cross, but they couldn’t say what the Abkhazians would do, as if it depended on their mood. This surprised me. I thought the two were in lockstep. I assumed that since Russia was Abkhazia’s biggest benefactor, it’s reason for being, that there was a natural connection and coziness between the two, lots of warm and fuzzy feelings all around. The guard said to me, “Abkhazia people…are goat fuckers.”
     Oh.
     He asked how much money I made in America, saying he made $500 a month. I asked if it was enough to live on. He shrugged his shoulders. I also asked if he had to get (extort) money from travelers passing through to supplement his income, but he didn’t answer and it might have been imprudent to ask, so we moved on to other topics, like guns. He said Russian police weren’t violent and gun-crazy like American police. He pretended to point a gun at a colleague and yelled, “Shut up and get down, Motherfucker!” to the amusement of us all.
     I asked to take a photo with him and he refused, saying he isn’t allowed to be on any social networks. It’s probably for the better. I don’t dare say his name, which rhymes with “Doris.” Just kidding.
abkhazia white plate

     This standard Abkhazia license plate goes for about $50 on ebay.


It didn’t go as smoothly as I expected the next day.
     The next morning at the border, I didn’t expect to sashay through the Russian side, but I also didn’t expect to get the third degree from several officers and led around from one room to another. My passport has never been more thoroughly scrutinized. I didn’t emerge for nearly an hour.
     The officer in the booth kept me hanging for a long time, Russian tourists silently fuming as they waited behind me. I was then told to step aside until someone came for me and then the questions began: why I was visiting? Where will I go? How long did I intend to stay? What did I know about Abkhazia? Did I know I had to return to Russia afterward?
     Two officers unlocked a door and sat me down for an interview. One took notes in longhand while the other translated. The passport was pored over and a stamp was noted for Somaliland, another breakaway republic. I forgot about that one. (Thank God my Syrian visa is illegible.) He asked if I knew about the tiny islands in the South China Sea that China and Japan both claim. I said I did.
     “Do you have plans to go there next?”
     I laughed, but he wasn’t smiling. I stopped laughing.
     They asked me my job and I said I worked at Yahoo. I worked at Yahoo for only three months last winter, but for the next ten years I am going to tell any officialdom I work at Yahoo. Everyone seems impressed. They asked me what I did at Yahoo and I was tempted to say, “Janitor.”
     “Do you have a visa for Abkhazia?” I was finally asked, the one question I was waiting for, but then he asked another question before I had time to answer, and the moment passed.
     I was taken to another room where several officers handed my passport around. For each one I had to stand and stare at them while they looked back and forth at me and the photo. All of them used a monocle-like magnifying device to more closely examine it. The photo, one explained, was dark and not sharp. That’s true. My passport is 6 years old now and the photo is easily 10+ years old. It’s a small miracle they let me get away with it when I renewed. I am decomposing rapidly, and the fresh-faced ingenue from ten years ago is now a grizzled, homeless drifter.
     One officer asked if I thought Abkhazia was independent or part of Georgia. I said the safe thing, that if I am here to get my passport stamped, therefore it must be a different country. He told me that a Spanish cyclist came through recently and he said it was part of Georgia. What a jackass, I thought. You have to know who you are talking to in these situations, and that was the worst thing to say to the Russians. I assume they refused him entry.
     He continued, “What do Americans think of Abkhazia? Is it independent?”
     I gave an impertinent answer, saying that Americans don’t think of Abkhazia, that Americans don’t think much about the rest of the world.
     Everyone became satisfied or bored and they let me go. I was struck that the Russians were not aggressive or forceful in any way. They were professional and straightforward, they asked their questions, and if they chose to not let me through, that would have been that. No histrionics, no good cop, bad cop shenanigans.
abkhazia police plate

     This Abkhazia police license plate would go for at least a week’s salary for a policeman.


     I felt victorious to make it through the gauntlet and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Walking on the bridge over the small river demarcating the border, I suddenly realized I didn’t know what I was going to say to the Abkhazians about being paperless. It’s good to have a game plan rather than give vague answers when they ask what you are doing.
Welcome to Abkhazia?
     The Russian border control is in a good-sized building, an appropriate size for such a place. The Abkhazian side looks improvised, just a couple of scraggly booths barely covered from the sun by an overhang. Everyone was going through quickly with their red passports, and then my blue passport gummed up the works. The guy took it and without opening it, he regarded the country on the cover and flipped it back and forth in his hand while contemplating something.
     He asked if I spoke Russian. I said no. He opened the passport and asked if I had the visa paper. I said no. He got out of the booth and had me walk within sight of a colleague twenty meters away to yell, in English, “Do you speak English!” but by now he was smiling and when the guard looked at him blankly, he started pointed at me and yelling to other colleagues, “Do you speak English!” and “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH!” again and again maniacally to anyone within earshot like Brando screaming for Stella in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It was embarrassing, and I could only stand and watch.
     In an epiphany he turned to the Russian tourists behind us in line and tried again, but quieter: “Do you speak English?”
     A young guy said yes. The guard spoke with him and I was told that I had to go to Sukhumi, the capital, about three hours away, within three days to get my visa.
     I was in disbelief. Huh? What? Really? That’s it? I’m through? I half-expected him to change his mind, but passport in hand, I skedaddled out of there quickly.
     I’m in Abkhazia! That was excitement. That was fun. The English speaker showed me which rickety bus I needed for Gagra, the nearest town about an hour away, and I felt relieved to be sitting down. The gregarious bus driver entertained us en route by engaging everyone in a Russian geography quiz. Abkhazia! It’s a good start.
abkhazia ministry

     The Abkhazia Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sukhumi, the super-sleepy capital.


Epilogue
     I made sure I didn’t show my face at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until the third day in case they freaked out about my being paperless, but the night before I finally got the visa letter in an email. It took four business days. I had tried the previous week, but my email bounced. I don’t know what changed.
     The visit was uneventful. The guy barely glanced at the paper. He asked how long I wanted to stay. I said ten days. He told me to go a bank about 100 meters away to pay for the visa, and when I came back, it took five minutes to get. They gave me ten days on top of the three I already had. The cost? 350 rubles, about $5.25. Incredible. Is there any other country on earth where the visa is less than $20? I can’t think of one.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     The best days to enter are Wednesday to Friday because you have three working days to get your visa and it buys you time if you don’t want to rush to Sukhumi. It occurred to me, however, that no one knows when I left Russia, so how could they know when three days is?
     Most people do this charade on the Georgian side because you need a multiple entry visa for Russia to enter from there.
     The one concern I have is to be paranoid about losing my passport. There’s no U.S. consulate here. The only thing in my favor is I don’t have a Russian exit stamp, so if I could make it back to Russia somehow I could just say I lost my white migration paper, but if I got caught trying to enter Russia through the mountains…I might even get my name in the papers back home for that.

south ossetia plate

     The very-rarely-seen South Ossetia license plate, another breakaway republic from Georgia. Should I try to go there next?


     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+.

Coming “Home” to Califortugal

everything is a story

     Seen in Evora, Portugal


     If you drive through the desolate highways of Central California late at night, on the radio you only hear Top 40 hits, talk shows, country music and religious sermons, but you can also hear Portuguese radio. Many Portuguese have emigrated over the years, Basques, too, both quietly.
     I began listening for the novelty. It was my first exposure to Portuguese, and I was transfixed. I assumed everyone in the Portuguese world spoke as the people on the radio, who sounded like nasal vampires with swishy “sh” sounds and a ghoulish cadence.
     The language is really something for the ears to behold. Long ago I was in Brazil for three months and I learned some Portuguese, but I learned a Sao Paulo dialect that nearly everyone speaks (and few admit) which is a crunchy, sing-song, maybe irreverent way of speaking. Bringing that to Portugal was awkward, as out of place as a Chinese guy in a bar in Eastern Kentucky saying, “Top of the day, Gents! I’m feeling right peckish! Might you have some crisps?” but with worse grammar.
ceramic plates house
     Before I came to Portugal I told my Portuguese friend (why do I have only one Portuguese friend? I have a theory about this at the end) that I had low expectations for Portugal. I hadn’t been in 22 years and I imagined it to be Spain Lite or I don’t know what. I didn’t know enough to form an opinion (which doesn’t stop me from forming my wacky theory later.)
     The countryside felt like home. The land is very similar to California, right down to the vineyards. In fact, my grandfather grew grapes in the Central Valley and in Portugal they do the same trick of planting a rose bush at the end of a row of grapes because it shows the health of the vines: a sick rose means the vines are in trouble.
sagres cliff

     Sagres is the westernmost point in continental Europe. I was at the easternmost point of continental Europe, Narva, Estonia, just a few weeks earlier.


     Hitchhiking around what was once The End of the Known World I came across the whole gamut of who populates the Algarve coast now. First it was a German woman who has lived in Portugal for 20 years, then an old Portuguese man in a sputtering car, then a Finnish family visiting the patriarch who had been living here but had a story that was only murmured to me in the backseat, much of it involving Cuba.
     A vacationing Irish couple pitied me frying in the sun and drove me a distance. The man’s first question was, “Are you ready for a Trump presidency?”
     I laughed and asked if he thought it was a sure thing, but he was serious to the point of bitterness and tersely replied, “Of course!”
cliff fishing

     That’s a solid 60-70 meter drop. That’s a dedicated fisherman.


last bratwurst

     Some German humor! “Last Bratwurst Before America.” Ingenious. Delicious.


lisbon jacaranda

     I had no idea Lisbon had jacarandas, one of my favorite trees. They make a sticky mess on the ground and on tops of cars, but that’s not my problem.


lisbon view

     Just one of many ho-hum Lisbon views.


old lady lisbon

     I feel for old people in Lisbon who have to negotiate these steep stony streets. Old people, though, seem to have pep beyond their years and are as laid back and good-natured as everyone else. That said, Portuguese are not morning people. Everything starts late; Spain maybe even more so.


bones chapel

     A chapel decorated with thousands of bones. in Evora, Portugal.


kob

     I intensely hate this restaurant name.


     Why do I have only one Portuguese friend? The companion question to this is why don’t Portuguese travel? My only Portuguese friend I met in Syria, of all places; a true freak.
     Since traditions live strong, I think the collective attitude is, “we discovered the world, it’s all been done, and now we will stop traveling and rest,” and they have been resting for 500 years now. How is that for a theory? Stunningly scholarific, right?
     One can hardly blame them. I loved Portugal. From my eyes it was Portuguese culture on top of California land, which should be OK in anyone’s book.
flamenco machine

     It pains me to look at this photo, and not just because it is blurry. This is a machine in the Flamenco Museum in Seville, Spain. It has a crank in the back and you can adjust the front setting depending on which kind of flamenco you want, and the wooden feet move to that rhythm. It’s the coolest thing ever. The problem is that this should be a video, but I can’t take video and crank it myself at the same time. This is why I have 3.5 billion ideas for video but can’t do it by myself and no one in their right mind has the patience to work with me. Frustrating.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION
wide toilet

     I stayed with a Couchsurfing host in Lisbon and they had this fabulous toilet. It’s wider than it is long! Incredible. Couchsurfing was very hard to manage in Portugal and Spain, but I found enough Airbnb deals to not mind. I don’t think I ever paid more than 15 euros to sleep anywhere, including Airbnb’s persnickety fees.


     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+.

Estonia Gushing

estonia plate

     Do you have any idea how much you could get for this license plate on eBay? Enough to pay for two to three weeks in India, easily.


parnu trees

     Hey Urban Planners, I’ve got a one-word message for you: trees! You want your city to look good, plant big leafy trees now. Name me an ugly city that has lots of big leafy trees. You can’t, because it doesn’t exist. Look closely at this. Parnu has the very seldom seen FOUR ROWS OF TREES ON ONE SIDE OF THE STREET!!! Urban Planners, buy a one-way ticket to Parnu now and learn something!


     Is it boring to read someone gush about a country? Are you suspicious that there might be unstated reasons for the gushing? I don’t trust anyone who gushes about Sweden at face value. There has to be something involved, a “Camilla”, say, or an obsession with priest cheese (really, you’ve got to try it), but I am gushing about Estonia, and while I do know three Estonian girls, they all moved away long ago and this isn’t about them. Also, Estonia is flat, and flatness is associated with boredom. The highest mountain (in all of the Baltics) is only 318 meters (1043 feet) but Estonia is an alluring Denmark flat (undulating land), not a harsh Netherlands flat (laser-sharp lines.)
     Part of the reason I love Estonia is due to my timing. Just like my visit to Bulgaria last year, it was just out of the clearly delineated “season”: warm, few people, off-peak prices, and altogether perfect. For the beach town of Parnu, especially, there is a rigid notion of when the season is—usually school holidays—with little flexibility. It could be snowing on June 1, but if that’s when the season starts, then all of the shops will be open. If it’s a balmy 24C a few days before June 1 with a few hundred people along the beach looking for food or drink, only one or two bars are open. If I came back to Parnu one week later, I might hardly recognize it through the bustle.
elephant slide

     The empty elephant slide in Parnu. In this part of the Estonia the water is shallow for as far as you can see people wading in it.


Not Much of a Border Story:
     At the beautiful Russia/Estonia border, Ivangorod and Narva Forts face each other with a small, meandering river and its grassy, green banks separating them. On the Russian side I tried not to laugh as a stout woman pored over my passport gravely, inspecting the added pages, and running her hand over the binding. I always have to suppress giggling when officialdom sees my passport—I would make an awful smuggler—because it is as if in this moment my traveling has to make sense to someone, and it’s absurd. In my twenties and thirties I got asked a lot about my job, how much money I had, my intentions, etc., but these days, hardly at all.
     She was checking the stamps page by page until she got fed up and reached for her phone, but after a while of fiddling with it she went for the walkie talkie. Something was said. She waited. The time dragged on; I made a point of not making eye contact with the the people behind me in line. Just when I thought I might be in for an interrogation, in her impatience she grabbed her rubber stamp and made a very good impression on the page with the other Russian stamp so the next border control agent can have an easier time trying to decipher it all.
     See? Told you it wasn’t much of a story. Same with the next one.
strawberry dairy

     Is there Estonian poetry about maasika kohupiimapasta? Songs? I guess haikus would be difficult.


     In the excitement of being in a new-feeling country, I did the normal thing of first checking out a supermarket. So much can be learned from a country by its supermarkets. I saw this refrigerated strawberry thick paste/cream thing (above) and was flummoxed. I approached an older woman and just as I started to ask, I caught myself too late: older people in Estonia are much less likely to speak English, I’d read. However, it was as if this erudite woman speaking the Queen’s English hangs out all day in the refrigerated aisle waiting to educate bewildered foreigners about Estonian dairy products.
     “I don’t know if you are able to imagine,” she started in a slow, suspenseful tone, pausing long for effect while I wondered about the effects of aging in isolation, “but this is something very common in the Baltic countries. Perhaps you might be familiar with something similar in Germany called quark—”
     “Quark!” I almost shrieked, afraid that I might be stuck in the store for hours, “Yes, I know quark, I understand,” and profusely thanked her and bowed while walking backwards, which I learned from the pros, the Japanese.
     Maasika kohupiimapasta is delicious stuff. Tastes like quark.
leaning house

     The Leaning House of Tartu.


soup town house

     Tartu has a district called Soup Town where all the streets are named for soup ingredients. It’s like an enormous living history museum with old wooden houses and dirt reclaiming the pavement.


     Maybe being in big cities for the last three weeks made me open to something different, or was it the weather? That new car smell because it has been 20 years since I was last in Estonia? Whatever the reason, Tartu struck me as gorgeous with its big leafy trees, overflowing greenery in parks, a lovely river, young vibe due to it being a college town, even a little Cuban shack bar by the river adds to its character. I was immediately enchanted by all the old wooden homes, not spruced up, but lived in. Tartu is cozy.
     Parnu on the coast might even be more impressive given the summer crush of people: perfectly laid out, each park idyllic, everything just the right size, the beach has nice facilities, there’s plenty of beach volleyball courts; I saw a yoga group, a sports camp for young girls, and at least three different tennis clubs nearby.
     Another reason I enjoy Estonia so much is that it feels I am visiting in a special era, that it’s all going to change soon. I think years from now Estonians will become all nostalgic when I tell them I visited in 2016. “2016,” they will say, with a faraway look in their eye and a heavy, “We were young then.” (Israelis always get like that when I say I visited in 1992.) Parnu looked familiar, like a less-developed Jurmala, Latvia, where I was last fall. Change feels inevitable.
pood

     I hitchhiked from Tartu to Parnu, feeling very naked with neither my USA flag nor my “From California to Parnu” sign. It was slow, but traffic was light. Several women picked me up as well as this guy on his way home from fishing, who dropped me off in front of this shop called “pood”, which means “shop.” Now it’s my dream to open a shop in America called “Shop”.


MEMORY LANE:
     From my last visit in Estonia twenty years ago I remember only a few things: there were two main places to sleep: upstairs at the bus station (noisy) or the youth hostel that shared the same front door as a strip club. You walked in, and the right arrow was for the hostel, and the left, a strip club. Some travelers who seemed to ordinarily have an excellent sense of direction found themselves lost night after night.
     Also 20 years ago I found the worst toilet I have ever seen in my life at the border to Russia in Narva. This time my bus into Estonia also made a ten-minute stop at Narva, and I leapt out to investigate, but the old toilet doesn’t exist any more. Kind of devastated, I have to admit. Progress?
tallinn house

     Until you get to the capital, Tallinn, it’s nearly impossible to so see how this country was Soviet for fifty-odd years. Even in Tallinn, though, the Soviet apartment block crush is away from the old center. Tallinn is also nicely laid out: the old wooden homes of Kalamaja, train station, port, old town, bus station—all of it is within walking distance of each other, even the airport is only 4km away.


estonia airport toilet

     Tallinn Airport is instantly a Top 3 Airport for me. Wonderful place. I didn’t check if prices were rapacious, but there’s a free book exchange, giant chess boards by the gates, super-comfy chairs, clean workspaces, children’s areas, and these funny toilets. Can you read what is says?
     The airport is a microcosm of what I like about the country: it’s cozy, mellow, pretty, efficient, easily accessible, understated, well-laid out and thought-through. It brings out my inner design geek.


     I met Julie from Connecticut in Tallinn and we had a chat. She said she has been reading my blog for four years. The lesson is if I’m passing through wherever you happen to be, don’t be shy about reaching out. I like meeting people. When Julie emerges from her intensive psychotherapy I bet she’d agree.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     I’m using Airbnb a lot. It’s addicting to be able to find a single room for the same price as a dorm bed. What I often do is only book one night and then ask the host how much it would be if you can pay directly for subsequent nights. Airbnb is taking cuts from both ends, so they will always agree to this and it is always significantly cheaper. It could backfire if the host has a booking for the next night. This happened in Tallinn but my host agreed anyway, giving me his room and sleeping on the couch.
     There are several bus companies in Estonia and prices are low; hitchhiking should be done for fun, not to save just a few euros. Lux Express is spreading out its tentacles beyond the Baltics now. Booking is cheaper online. Parnu to Tallinn was almost two hours and only five euros.
estonian language

     What a jumble of a language. Fortunately, I could smell that this meant to be careful of wet paint. Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language, as is Hungarian (a language I lived inside for one year teaching English in Hungary) though the similarity is in sentence structure rather than words. Both countries have a similar snack, though: a refrigerated curd bar wrapped in chocolate. In Estonian it’s called kohuke. It’s better in every respect to the Hungarian Turo Rudi. (I just offended a proud nation of 10 million people, but they know where I stand with them.)


     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+.

From Prussia with Plov

     Note: sometimes the titles make no sense.
     I’ve been on a bad run of flights to the point that I now dread flying altogether, and I want to wring the necks of those inbreds who clap their hands when the plane touches down and shout, “Bravo!” Where are we, at a bullfight? I had two flights in a row where there was the announcement, “Is there a doctor on board?” Storms seem to find my flight path. Turbulence bothers me now. I must still be shaken from last year’s burning engine off Guam.
     I must be getting old, because the other thing I (internally) rage about is cell phone etiquette. Why can’t people can’t put their phone to mute? Who wants to hear an incessant notification tone? The real question is, why can’t everyone be Japanese? Japan, you have so much going for you, and so much not, but let’s flesh this out another time.
     I don’t know what I can say about Mother Russia that I didn’t say last year. I’m mostly struck by Russian people, and I can’t escape from the word that they are gentle. I can’t think of a better word if I must pick one. I am tentative because I need to get out in the hinterland and out of the big cities to really formulate an opinion based on wide, solid experience. Maybe this summer.

ww2 monument

     No one did war monuments better than the Soviets. I eat this stuff up. Victory Park, Moscow.


spb head

     They’re going to need to make this sign in Chinese soon judging by the invading hordes.


toilet throw up

     YES! Wait, what?


gorky park

     I made a size extra large mistake by missing the May 9 Victory Day parade, but I did go to Moscow’s Gorky Park in the afternoon to be with the masses and flowers.


     I don’t know what to think about this video I took at the circus. It was arresting to watch it at the time, but I imagine a circus by nature involves a lot of “persuasion” to get wild animals to do anything, whether you have to drug them or not feed them or what. Is there such a thing as a humane circus?

singer building

     The stylish Singer Building in St. Petersburg, now a bookstore and cafe.


hooch

     No beating around the bush for Russians. Hooch!


kc red square

     Cheesy, I know, but how many Red Squares are there?


novodevichy cemetery

     One of my favorite graves at the Novodevichy Cemetery—maybe more interesting than Pere Lachaise in Paris—is an actor with his dog.


electrozavodskaya

     As a mass transit geek I unconditionally love the Moscow and St. Pete metro systems, and the stations are over-the-top fantastic, like this one at the deliciously-named Electrozavodskaya.


metro escalator

     The metro doubles as a bomb shelter so it is very deep. Thankfully, the escalators are fast, though old people can find it a challenge to mount. Some stations drip with atmosphere.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     This is the English website for the railways that shows how much a trip costs at a certain time. (Prices fluctuate based on demand.) You can see how much the 167-hour, Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok costs day to day. In late June I see $110 for a third class seat, aka The Hemorrhoid Express.
     This is a good resource for flights (In Russian, but you can get an idea of prices and then buy directly from the airlines.) Aeroflot.com is a clean and easy website to book. This isn’t your father’s Russia, I’m telling you!
     If going to Russia from the Baltics, Lux Express is a top-notch bus service with reasonable prices—reasonable considering you are crossing a border, which makes everything spike for some reason.
     If I head east, I’m looking to rely on the pan-European
rideshare website BlaBlaCar more than the trains. (In Russian. You can change to the British website on the bottom, but then everything is priced in pounds).
     Did you know there are plans for a 3000 bed(!) hostel in Moscow? I used Couchsurfing, Airbnb and hotels.com for most places I stayed. This hotel below, I wish I had seen the actual bed before I booked because this is the worst of both worlds: a footboard and a giant pillow. What dwarf invented these things?! Who needs a footboard on a bed? What purpose does a giant pillow serve other than to make the bed shorter? Mystifying.
bad bed

     At least they gave me a towel. Two towels, one for crying. I might be done with traveling soon.


moscow moldova

     2000 rubles (US$30) to go from St. Petersburg to Moldova is a deal. That’s a loooong way.


     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+.

Body by Yahoo!

yahoo sign

     To keep me off the mean streets of Northern California, I got a three-month job at Yahoo.


     Have you missed me?
     I’ve been quiet for two reasons: I haven’t been backpacking so everything else seems boring by comparison, and Yahoo told me 591 times that my work is confidential and I’ve been scared to write anything about my time there since I’d like to be able to return.
     But here I am. My contract is over, and I’m hitting the road again. I have a Russian visa in my possession—a three-year, multiple entry visa!—and only today did I realize that includes the 2018 World Cup in Russia. (I’ll be active on Instagram in Russia if you want to see some funny, vaguely provocative photos.)
yahoo front

     If Yahoo had a washer and dryer and if they’d let me sleep under my desk, I would gladly never leave campus. Free food, free gym, nice facilities—what’s not to like? On the other hand, as it was, I had friends nearby that I never saw and lived a Yahoo-only existence.


expectant mother parking

     I kept offering to get my colleagues pregnant so they could get these prime parking spots, but no one took the bait. (I guess, “Come meet me under desk A-3771 after work” isn’t very compelling.) The women of Yahoo, they’re very intelligent, I’m telling you.


     My title at Yahoo was Search Editor, but it seems to be an internal game that job titles are opaque and it’s a riddle as to what everyone really does. There is strict confidentiality even between teams and endless reminders to keep it that way. Too much is at stake for loose lips in the hyper-competitive tech world. (I sound so knowledgeable!) I will say that my primary duty at Yahoo (nervously looking over my shoulder) was to improve search results. Vague enough? Whew! That was a close one!
     I say this to people and I can see in their eyes the real question is how I managed to get a job at Yahoo with my skill set, which from all appearances is limited to hitchhiking and dumpster diving, but I’m here to tell you that I’m more than a pretty face, kemosabe. I’ve done a few different things in my life, and it’s no small feat to type 57 words a minute with a phone precariously held in one ear during an interview. I also used to work for a company that Yahoo bought, and I still know a few people here. And I have photos of all of them in compromising positions. Blackmail is a bitch.
     I was more interested in how I fit in with my co-workers. On my team I was a good 15 years older than anyone else, and sometimes it felt like I was Creed from the U.S. version of the TV show, “The Office”: a weird crank with a hazy past best left unmentioned. I’d be overcome with the delusion that they’d want to hear about the time I was in Syria just before the war and then I’d see the looks on their faces and realize I need to do a quick u-turn. As a solitary traveler, it was a nice change to be part of a team, so I tried to make myself useful and it was fun. Yahoo was fun. Working was fun. There, I said it.
yahoo view

     The yin and yang of my Yahoo life: the cafeteria on the right and the gym on the left. I swear, I worked out a minimum of one solid hour every single weekday, more solid hours every single weekend, and yet I weigh the most I ever have in my life. I’d show you a photo, but, um, my camera is broken.


     The food was incredible. Some days would see wild boar or chimichurri turkey legs or wagyu beef hamburgers. Anything on the daily menu where I thought to myself, “Wow, when am I ever going to have that again?” I had to try, which became virtually every meal. Somehow I seemed to be the only one at Yahoo without any self-control, and my weight spiked. How can you control yourself when every meal is an exotic feast and all of it is free? FREE!
     I can safely say that for the rest of my non-Yahoo life I won’t be eating chia seeds and quinoa in comparable quantities. Even in the humdrum snack rooms there’d be drinks that I’d stare at like a just-released prisoner, unable to recognize anything familiar.
yahoo food3

     Suuuuuuushi and mussels!


yahoo food1

     As I recall, this was a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich with grilled mahi mahi.


yahoo food2

     A simple caesar salad and prosciutto crudo. I never looked to see what desserts there were. Let sleeping dogs lie.


     Sleeping is the problem in Silicon Valley, which rivals New York City now for highest rents in the nation. I did it all: couchsurfed at a Nicaraguan girl’s apartment, slept on friends’ couches and spare rooms, and suffered through Airbnb.
     I think I have used Airbnb in California five or six times, and not once have I met the host. It’s all latchkey accommodation on the low end. I don’t mind an invisible host, but there are inevitable communication problems. (Of course, in their reviews of me, I am always a great guy, muy simpatico.) It’s a seller’s market on Airbnb in Silicon Valley. Look at this ridiculous “pod” for $33.
     Eventually I found an in-law room in Sunnyvale that cost $800 for four weeks, an absolute bargain. I shared a bathroom with a surly Chinese girl working at Google who refused to tell me her name. (How I found it was instructive. Instead of answering housing ads on Craigslist, I made my own “housing wanted” ad and found a Vietnamese widow looking for a short-term renter.
airbnb san jose

     For one night I was at this Airbnb in East San Jose: a makeshift “room” separated by bed sheets that I shared with an equally bewildered Indian guy whose “room” was off the kitchen. This was also the nicest place I stayed.


(NOT VERY) PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     Do you know how hard it is to get a library card in California? They want official proof that I live somewhere, but I am always sleeping around or unofficially subletting and have no paperwork to support my claim. Frustrating. It is easier to buy pure heroin or automatic weapons than it is to check books out from the Sunnyvale Public library.
     I own a smartphone now. Check me out! I was hoping to be the only person working at Yahoo (or all of Silicon Valley?) without one, but I had to have it. A friend upgraded and gave me his Samsung S4 Galaxy. I’m instantly as hooked everyone else, to my chagrin, but the weird part is getting used to being accessible. I might be Creed after all.
     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+.

Witnessing American Football in the California Republic

ticket asian

     Oakland Raiders fans, they come in all styles, and yet, something about this Asian woman screamed trafficking.


     As we draw closer to the biggest sporting event in America, the Super Bowl, which is being played in three weeks less than five miles from where I live and work it is time to reflect upon the experience of seeing an actual American football game. I realize that few things make me sound more un-American than saying “American football”, but how many countries don’t call soccer “football”? Few.
     A friend in town suddenly “remembered” that she had a cousin who worked security for the Oakland Raiders, so she managed to nab passes to one of the hottest games of the year against the mighty Green Bay Packers. (How can you forget something like that? How? It’s like saying, “Hey, I just remembered, Mick Jagger’s my uncle. Want to go to the show?”)
     It’s hard to imagine that I would pay for an NFL ticket in any circumstance. Our passes didn’t have prices on them, but a ticket I found on the ground (ebay, I can’t quit you) with a face value of $120. It costs $35 just to park at the stadium! Food and drink prices were reminiscent of small-town Switzerland.
raiders tarp

     The Raiders have a diabolical arrangement where you have to pay for a “personal seat license” that in turn gives you the privilege of buying super-expensive season tickets to a perennially awful team that is always threatening to leave town. The Raiders have trouble selling out—tons of visiting Packers’ fans had tickets—and instead of copping to the humiliation of showing empty seats in the upper deck of the Oakland Coliseum, they cover them with tarps.


lost a bet

     The most rabid fans sit on the end of the field called The Black Hole, but they are everywhere, really, including Mr. Raider4Life here wearing a rival Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. He said the bet he lost requires him to wear this the whole season.


raiders prices

     I wondered which had the biggest profit margin. So much to choose from! I thought airports were bad, but this is another level. “Cheddar cheese sauce” is illegal in 23 states.


raiders stadium

     As much as you might think it is better to sit at home and watch the game on TV in the comfort of your dungeon while we suffer in the freezing cold and rain, there is something to say for the electricity of being at a live event and seeing the whole field, not a narrow TV screen version. Even in the cheap seats you don’t feel far from the action, and despite the Oakland Coliseum being a cesspool of a stadium, it is exciting to be in the energy of 55,000 rabid fans.


california republic

     The California state flag flying over The Eternal Flame of the Losing Season. (The Raiders lost 30-20. They always lose.) That’s a good-looking flag for a good-looking state. I, for one, am waiting for The Holy Mother of All Earthquakes that everyone predicts in the hope that California becomes an island and we can again be an independent republic. #49states


warriors floor

     My friend’s cousin also let us check out the floor of the Golden State Warriors who play in the adjacent arena. It was a great experience all around; my personal highlight of the day came when I saw former Raider great Rod Martin in the bathroom.


OAKLAND MEMORIES:
     It’s a local sport to pick on the shabby, derelict Oakland Coliseum, but I have only fond memories. I’ve been to at least 50 events there over the years: two Metallica concerts, The Who, Gold Cup soccer, and dozens of Oakland A’s baseball games, including this famous one from the movie, “Moneyball”, with Brad Pitt. (The real-life, less-Hollywood version of that clip is here.) I made over $100 selling those tickets on ebay, too.
     Last thing: I’m on Instagram! For frustrating reasons I can’t make a button yet where you would normally see it on my website, but this is the link. Follow!
     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+.

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