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.

     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 People You Meet Hitchhiking Across Half of Mongolia

mongolia plate

     The stylish Mongolian license plate. They use the Cyrillic alphabet here.

     It seems absurd to be in remote western Mongolia and say to yourself, “I’m going to hitchhike!” but I tried it around the town of Olgii and then a little out of town, and after 10 or 12 rides, I gave it a go. Hitchhiking around Mongolia! I did over 1000 miles (1600km). The waits can be long as traffic is very light, but the rewards are worth it—if you are the hitchhiking type. Otherwise, you might find it time wasted, too risky, too lonely, or a potent combination of all three. I like the interaction. It’s fun, for example, to get picked up by three policeman in a Toyota Prius(!) wanting to help you out.
     The policemen in the Prius were busy so I couldn’t take their photo, but here are some pictures of others who picked me up hitchhiking (and then I have three quick stories):
mong hitch2

     These people didn’t know it, but they were a test to see if I could hitchhike out of town, this time to a viewpoint in Olgii. It was super-quick, so I decided to go for Khovd, the next town south 220km away.

olgii hovd hitch

     Standing here, the second car didn’t come for an hour after the first one, but I was never concerned that I might get stuck. Sure, there was a village 5km away—I wasn’t going to perish—but I was supremely confident that it was all going to end up OK, even when it started to rain and I had no shelter. I made sure I had enough water and dry food to last me the day. I changed all my clothes in the middle of the road when it began to rain, gobbled sunflower seeds, and I took that second car.

mong hitch1

     This rosy-cheeked woman was one of 11 in the van that took me from the point above to Khovd. She insisted on a selfie when we made a toilet stop (i.e. the middle of the road. See below.)

mong hitch uaz

     This is was the toilet stop. As you can see, there is nowhere to go, so there is everywhere to go. People just walk 20 meters away and drop their pants. You have to admire their insouciance about it. I haven’t seen this many bare butts since (fill in your joke here. I was going to go with “a Rolling Stones concert in San Francisco. Kind of weak.)

Three quick hitchhiking stories:
     1) Consider this: a family of five is in their Toyota Land Cruiser and they stop to take me, a hitchhiker, for free, for seven hours across the hot desert, over five of those hours on bumpy dirt roads.
     It means that we are now four in the back seat, which is a squeeze. I have to sit with my backpack in my lap while the two girls and the mother are tight together. The woman closest to me is sitting hard against my body for seven uncomfortable hours. They don’t argue with the father about picking me up, and they continue in their good spirits. An hour later the woman is sleeping on my shoulder.

     2) I was on the edge of Bayankhongor at a toll booth waiting for cars to come. There’s not a lot of traffic, and by now I am seeing a pattern where Mongolians take their time starting out on long drives. I don’t understand that. You’d think if they had a mechanical problem or because of the heat they’d want to get going early, but no.
     At the toll booth a Land Cruiser with a family of three pulled up. The toll taker told the guy I was going to Arvaikhher, about four hours away, and then I don’t know if he told him to take me or he asked, but it was a very short conversation. The family drove me for six hours, it turned out, because I was going farther, and though we didn’t have more than three words of a common language, they were content to have me in their car for so long. Isn’t that remarkable?

     3) The roughest ride was from Khovd to Altai. I had been standing for hours when yet another Land Cruiser stopped—it really is the best vehicle for these roads—so I ignored the fact there were eight people already in it, quickly bargained, and got in. The driver was strangely cautious. On perfect, paved roads he never went more than 80kmh (50mph), saying something about not wanting to exceed 2000rpms, which makes no sense and was completely maddening.
     We were nine in a car meant to seat five, and then we were ten. We came across someone they knew with car problems, so he came along and sat on a guy’s lap for hours. It was truly miserable, but there was one funny thing. They fed him some food, and some of it got stuck in his teeth. He casually ripped some thread off the upholstery from the seat in front of him and used it as dental floss. No one was bothered by this. So cool.
     It’s impossible to think that any of this would happen in America. If only we had a president that would fix everything and make America great again.

mong hitch3

     This is the family from hitchhiking story #1.

mong hitch4

     See the Subaru behind these guys? It’s not made for Mongolian roads. We bottomed out countless times, the wheel well screeching loudly over and over, a dreadfully unnerving sound for me, no big deal for them.

mong hitch5

     This man saved me from a mess of a situation when I get let out in a village and not on the main road, and he went out of his way to put me in the right place.

mong hitch6

     Getting in a van with three shirtless, tattooed guys might give some pause for thought, but I’m very at ease with Mongolians by now. Solid people.

mong hitch7

     More shirtlessness. People are very comfortable with their bodies. It’s admirable.

mong hitch8

     This was in Olgii town just to go a few kilometers, but it’s so dusty and and windy that I gave it a try. Easy peasy. They must still be marveling at how lazy Americans are.

mong hitch9

     I have no recollection of this guy.

     On long distance rides, I can only think of one instance where it would have been possible to manage if I was traveling with someone. There’s just not enough space for two people plus backpacks.
     I can think of three times where it was obvious that I would need to pay for a ride, and I always bargained or made clear what the price was before I got in. The gesture to stop a car is not to put your thumb out, but just your hand extended, or like dribbling a basketball.
     A motorcyclist gave me a ride, once. In Mongolia it’s easy to forget seat belts exist, but it was terrifying to zoom around on sandy roads at 80kph (50mph) without a helmet. Sorry, Ma. I’m still pursuing my dream of a garbage truck, a hearse, and an ambulance picking me up.
     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 Super Funkiness of Western Mongolia

olgii cow

     A cow’s eye view of Olgii, the first town you come to from the Russian border.

     In one month and 5000+ km in Russia, I saw exactly one other traveler. Now in Olgii, remote western Mongolia, I have seen at least 15. Mongolia is on everyone’s bucket list, and I am beginning to see why.
     I came the backdoor way, via Russia. Everyone else comes on the rough roads slowly being improved upon from the capital, Ulan Bator, 1000 miles (1600km) away. Olgii is a long way from anywhere, but if I plopped you in the middle of this dusty town, you wouldn’t feel it. There is enough bustle and energy to distract you from realizing that the next stoplight is days away.
     Did someone say stoplight? Check out this video of Olgii’s super funky stoplight!

     I met a couple who thought it would be an “adventure” to take a public bus from Ulan Bator. As Pico Iyer would say, it was the last word in discomfort. It took a grueling 48 hours, and they still looked shell-shocked from the recollection of it. They said they had the same driver the whole time, too. He was on automatic pilot, just making the minimum stops for quick food and toilet breaks.
     I’ve seen these bus toilet breaks. The bus drivers don’t care where they stop. Neither do the passengers. Everyone just walks 20 steps away and drops their pants. It’s a sight to (un)see.
germans mongolia

     These German college students are doing what every college student should be doing and few do: a road trip. (My college roommate and I drove around America one summer watching baseball games and it was my favorite trip.)
     They bought a Peugeot—A Peugeot?! Don’t they break down every other day in normal conditions?—for 700 euros and just went hellbent to Mongolia, driving across Russia in nine days. They weren’t pulled over once by the infamous Russian traffic police either, probably because they went full ghetto on the car. Look at that wood pallet on top! They also said needed a sort of car passport from home but paid nothing at the Russian or Mongolian borders. They need to mail the license plates home after they get rid of the car here for German tax reasons.
     Everything had gone fine until they were on a mountain yesterday and the brakes gave out. They descended using the emergency brake only, which could have been suicidal. I went to the garage because my new Japanese friend, Yasu, had problems with his motorbike. At the garage half a dozen guys descended on the bike, and after 30 or 45 minutes they changed some fuses and charged him $10, I think it was.
     Yes, hanging out at a garage talking with everyone is my idea of a good time when traveling.

     Speaking of cars, I see lots of Toyota Land Cruisers. Aren’t they crazy-expensive, especially by the time they wind up in Mongolia? Someone must be making serious coin to afford them, so this can’t be a lazy backwater. There’s a lot I don’t know.
     The real mystery is the prevalence of the hybrid Toyota Priuses. Priuses!!! Give the Prius salespeople raises. I never guessed my first ride in a Prius would be from hitchhiking around town in western Mongolia, but there you are.
toilet condoms

     The recommended Blue Wolf Ger Camp was full, so I stayed at the phenomenally shabby Tavan Bogd Hotel in the middle of Olgii, paying more than I ever paid in Russia ($15). Instead of toilet paper they supplied 5 condoms. Whaaat?

shower desk

     The first shower I’ve seen that had a wood desk. Is this the future in writing? Would my blog posts improve with a little soap? Hey, who just said, “It can’t hurt?”

     I moved into the Blue Wolf as fast as possible the next day. It was my first experience in a ger, or yurt. Gers are amazing. I’m an instant huge fan. $10 including breakfast. This is a video of what more groovy super funkiness looks like:

apple sheets

     Did you get a good look at the Apple Computer bed sheets?

turkish shakers

     For some reason there is a fairly authentic Turkish restaurant called Pamukkale in Oglii. I don’t think there is a comparable place within 1000km. I ate there twice a day. These are their salt and pepper shakers.

grand hotel altai

     Wait, I stayed in one more awful hovel! This was in Khovd at the optimistically named Grand Hotel. Hotels over restaurants are usually bad news; I should have known.

grand hotel hallway

     I saw a mouse scurry under the bed, and I was hoping he was going to make his way downstairs to chow down, but it remained, maybe called a friend or two, and the noise became so unnerving I found myself sleeping in the hallway. Fun times in Mongolia! Traveling is the best!

     Blue Wolf Ger Camp is the go-to place for arranging tours in Olgii. An Italian couple wanted to do a two-day excursion, and (for a very cool, UAZ Soviet-era van) they were quoted $60 a day plus $80 for gas and to see an eagle demonstration it is another $25. The ger would be $10 plus breakfast.
     I arrived in town knowing very little. I took a photo of the Olgii Wikitravel page. It’s so out of date, but it’s all I know. Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree is a shell of itself, as are Couchsurfing’s travel groups. I don’t know where to turn. Lonely Planet’s website, too, is very user-unfriendly. Talk about a fall from grace. Lonely Planet, you used to be a god.
windshield wipers

     This is the view from inside a car I was hitchhiking in when it started to rain. The driver had substituted a sock for the right windshield wiper. Resourceful! The next blog post will be about my hitchhiking in Mongolia. I’ve done over 1000 miles (1600km) now, most of it on dirt roads. It’s been an experience I don’t hope to duplicate.

     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+.

Hitchhiking to Mongolia Wifeless, Childless & Shameless

     Mongolia is a new country for me! If I have to guess, I would say it is #106, but there is the endless debate among us country counters about how a country is defined and what constitutes a visit. I know an Italian guy who doesn’t feel like it hasn’t been a true visit until a local girl has slapped him. Yes, I’m talking about you, Bonadio!

border toilet door

     Let’s celebrate a new country with a toilet photo! This is on the Russian side of the border. Do I really want to open that door?

border toilet open

     Ewwwww! It’s disgusting AND precarious!

     Kosh-Agach, the last town before the border 50km away, means “Last Tree” in Kazakh, and is said to be the driest place in Russia. It rained. At least it keeps the dust down. It’s a featureless, high altitude scruffy settlement with two-tone mountains in the distance. It’s not a pace anyone lingers. You know where it reminded me of? Alamogordo, New Mexico, which I think is Spanish for “bleakness.”
hitch kosh agach

     I dutifully got up early from the only real place to stay in Kosh-Agach, Tsentralnya Hotel, and went down the street to the Maria-ya supermarket to take a share taxi to the border, as I heard that’s what everyone does—–but the parking lot was completely empty. OK, Plan B: hitchhiking. It is pretty common to see people on the road holding their hands out for lifts, so I gave it a try.
     Traffic was light. Many drivers passing by indicated that they were staying in the area; this communication, I always believe, is a good sign, that at least people are interacting with you.

2 mong girls

     A Mongolian family stopped for me. They had a van crammed full of stuff they were going to sell in their shop when they got home. I sat in the back with the two daughters, aged 18 and 9. The 18 year old was named Enkhtuul.

russia border line

     It’s a shockingly good road to the border. Usually these roads are in the worst condition. Must be a political reason. There were only 15 or 20 cars ahead of us at the border, but it took us two and a half hours to get to the one person(!) stamping passports at immigration. The other drag is that they are very thorough in checking cars—this is to leave Russia, remember—and they have sniffer dogs and plenty of time.

     The immigration officer looked me up and down and did who knows what for an uncomfortable period before deciding to make me stand out of the line while he made a call. He might have been punishing me for laughing. I always crack up at immigration. Something about the absurdity of it gives me the giggles. After 10 minutes I was allowed to pass.
     So I was already through and hanging out with the 9-year old girl while the van was being searched when another immigration officer approached. I thought he was going to yell at me for spitting date pits and sunflower seed shells all over the ground in the inspection area. Instead he asked for me to come back inside and go upstairs with him.
     Oy vey. I don’t know what this is about, but it can’t be good, I thought. At the same time, I have nothing to hide and can give credible, quick answers for everything. This will be easy. At least that’s what I thought.
The Interview
     He handed me over to someone who spoke English. The door was closed and I was with a young guy who seemed a little unnerved by the gravity of his job, but boldly made a go of it. He got out a pen and paper and started with the usual questions about my trip, dutifully writing down every town I had been in. What was my job? I said I worked at Yahoo, which startled him a little. “You mean, like Google, Yahoo?” He asked what my job was there.
     “Search Editor,” I said. He didn’t understand, and I regretted saying the word “editor” because it is too close to “journalist” which is what you get killed for in Russia these days. I explained that I was trying to improve search results.
     He started dancing around the topic of why I was traveling alone. Was I married? Did I have kids? Why wasn’t I traveling with anyone? I wanted to answer, “because who in their right mind wants to sit for three hours at this godforsaken border?!” but I said that it’s hard to find people to come here and—I couldn’t resist—the Russian visa is too difficult to get.
     He asked if I normally traveled alone and I said yes.
     I travel too much for someone to have the same schedule.
     He countered that he sees lots of people traveling together. Didn’t I think that if I found the right person that I could make it work?
     I was on the defensive, feebly saying, “Yes, it’s possible.”
     Did I like traveling alone?
     I said I was used to it.
     Did I want to get married?
     I’m not against it, I said, but it isn’t something that is going to happen soon.
     Do I want kids? Not at this stage of my life, I said.
     Why didn’t I want to have kids?
     I kept answering these questions, but by now I was only thinking, “What the hell is this?!” I get these questions from half the people I meet, sure, but I never expected this interrogation in Siberia on the Russian/Mongolian border as I’m trying to leave the country.
     I said that if I want to be with kids, I can hang around with my sister’s six kids, and he wrote down that my sister has six kids. I didn’t mention that they are all adults now. Am I failing this tete-a-tete? What are the consequences of my answers? Have the Mongolians become tired of waiting and left me behind?
     He continued. Did I like Russia? Was I taking pictures? Could he see some of them? For an instant I wondered if I was going down a rabbit hole, that this might lead to something I’m not prepared for and definitely not clever enough to get out of, but in the second instant I handed my phone over, then tried to remember if I had any photos I should be worried about. The first photo he saw was of the toilet, and he laughed.
     He pored over the photos and asked if I had Instagram. Again I showed him my phone. He laughed some more and seemed genuinely entertained by it. He wrote down my Instagram name, misterkiasu. Was he going to follow me? By now he seemed disappointed that I was going to go. I think he wanted to become friends, maybe settle down, start a family, adopt some kids.
     He never asked me about the Mongolians I was traveling with. On the border I am cognizant that it can all go sour very quickly. You are casting your lot in with who picks you up, and if at the border you say something flippant like this is my Mongolian family I’m traveling with, what if they are discovered to be smuggling drugs?
mongolian border van

     Imagine having to do this twice every time you cross the borders. I like the little girl playing her video game on a box, like she’s been through this countless times already. They had another eight hours to get home, less than half of it paved.

     It’s 15km between borders. I don’t know if I had walked through the border on the Russian side if they would have let me hitchhike through No Man’s Land to get to the Mongolian side. It would have saved me at least two hours if so.
     They’re more relaxed on the Mongolian side, and Americans are one of the few nationalities that don’t need visas for Mongolia. It would have been funny if the Mongolian immigration guy started with the same questions or if he had said, “Hey, I got this call from my Russian colleague and he forgot to ask what you think of baby names.”
     Mongolian immigration was mellow, but the customs guy was in a foul mood. Enkhtuul said they were going to be stuck there a long time as they dissect their van and that it might make sense if I went ahead and tried to scrounge a ride.
     At the gate to be let out, the border guy was amused to see my American passport and asked how I was going to go further. It was a good question.
     At that moment another car came and when he rolled down the window to give his documents, I butted into their interaction and asked if I could come along for a way. He agreed, to the relief of everyone, and a Kazakh-Russian guy and his wife drove me 25km to the first settlement, Tsagganuur.

     This dude in Tsagganuur came over to chat and watch me hitchhike.

     I hitched a ride with a van of locals to Olgii. The landscape is something different. It’s all short grassland and rolling hills, the steppe. I saw yaks and camels. This is exciting. I’m in a daze that I am actually in Western Mongolia. Over 6000km and five time zones from Sochi!
yasu and me

     On my last day in Russia, after over a month in the country, I met my first foreigner, a Japanese named Yasu, and he was on a motorcycle. He’s traveling in a funny way, by parking his van and then riding his motorcycle in a circle back to the van, and then onward to make another base. He shipped his motorcycle inside the van and traveled along with them from the only port in Japan that would allow him to do it that way to Vladivostok, which was from remote Tottori-ken. It cost him $3000.

     I don’t have much yet. I don’t know anything about Mongolia. With the Russians I never am confident they are going to let me out or in, so I didn’t study beforehand like I would normally.
     In Olgii I found a miserable place to stay. so bad I might even feature it in the next blog post.
     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 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 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”. and 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, which blows chunks all over 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.

     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.

     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.

     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.
     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 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.)


     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.”
     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.

     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.

     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.


     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.

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+.

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