Archive for August, 2009

National Day

August 30th, 2009 4:23 am by Dave

Today, August 24, we’re in Kiev, where it’s the Fourth of July.  The hotel said they’d pick us up at the train, but we didn’t see them. We took the metro and when we emerged, there were whatever is Ukrainian for Blue Angels (Blue and Yellow Angels?) flying overhead, all the streets were packed with people, and the streets between where we were and where our hotel was were blocked off because of a parade.  After about an hour we were able to walk through the crowd and get to our hotel, where we chilled for awhile.  We did some late-afternoon walking around town, spending awhile at St. Michael’s Cathedral where some Orthodox service was going on with singers behind the iconostasis, the large wall in the middle of the church. Were they singing microtonally or were they just out of tune?  Either way, I should have brought my field recorder.  The bell tower had a museum featuring decades of Russian/Ukrainian history, climaxing in Stalin’s systematic destruction of the cathedral in 1937:  it was only rebuilt in 1990.  The carillon in the bell tower can be played by a live musician at a console, but it is also played by a computer every hour.  We stared at the mechanism, and realized that the console operates the clapper inside each bell, but the computer operates a separate clapper outside each bell.  Still no field recorder.

We had a delicious Ukrainian dinner at a touristy restaurant, and as we walked back to the hotel, the main streets were still packed with people celebrating.  There were lots of interesting drunk people to take pictures of.  We got back to the hotel a little too early: shortly after we returned we heard a short sequence of fireworks and cannon audible over the crowd.

Screaming and Shouting

August 30th, 2009 4:21 am by Dave

Moscow was a blast — lots of hard touring but a big old beautiful city with one monument after another and lots of interesting old architecture.  (Not that much interesting new architecture, though.)

On Thursday, after the shaky arrival at our hostel, we walked to Red Square and toured the most famous visual image of Moscow, St. Basil’s Cathedral.  Afterwards, at 12:50, we realized that the Lenin mausoleum and the Kremlin were both closed, and we’d have to wait until Saturday for both to be open.  The way we realized this is that a guy appeared out of the crowd offering to sell us a ticket to the free exhibit for a thousand rubles.  Then 500.  But it’s free.  We’re paying this much for a line jump?  Is line jumping to see parts of dead people the new theme for the vacation?  Then I asked one of the genuine official line wranglers who said it was closed.  Can you imagine how many languages he can say “closed” in?

So we hopped on the subway and went out to the Novodevichy Convent, which had some extensive exhibits of Orthodox icons and is a beautiful peaceful place just generally.  Just as it closed, the sun came out of the clouds and the light became perfect and the cemetery next door closed.  Timing was not the forte today.

Friday we attacked three museums:  the 19th-20th Century European Art branch of the Pushkin museum, the Ilya Glazunov museum across the street, and the New Tretyakov.  The first wasn’t particularly Russian, but was still a large collection of lots of interesting work.

A few years ago, the Guardian (UK) published a list of the World’s 50 Greatest Works Of Art.  I have not exactly been pursuing them, but I did put them in a file on my computer and as long as we were at the Pushkin, and one of the world’s 50 greatest works of art was, I thought, well, I should pay attention when we walk past.

I have no idea what they were talking about.

Their choice was by a Mr. Cézanne, called “The Plain of the Mount Sainte-Victoire, View from Valcros”.  There are a maximum of 50 works of art in the entire world that are better than this?  I stared at it and stared at it trying to figure out, I mean, it’s OK, it matches the sofa but the Guardian is goofing on the art world.  No wonder “Spiral Jetty” is in there, and “Torqued Ellipses”, but they left out Donatello’s “David” to say nothing of all the great big pieces you’ve ever heard of which are actually famous because they are good, like the Mona Lisa and Guernica and Falling Soldier.

I don’t know if Ilya Glazunov is exhibited anywhere besides his own museum, but it was filled with three floors of paintings and drawings.  There were several monumental pieces with lots of detailed political references in the style of the cover of “Sergeant Pepper’s” (which is quoted, of course), and many simpler pieces of people with big eyes.  He is the Walter Keane of his era, but also the Leroy Nieman and the Gilbert and George and many other big name art sycophants and most of his work you are embarrassed to be looking at, like the National Enquirer or Us in the supermarket checkout line (but never Weekly World News); but there is a 1963 mawkish portrait of a dead tsarovitch that would have entailed some risk to be seen in that year, if that’s actually when he painted it.  (Yes, I suspect self-aggrandizing curating.)

Mostly just sad clowns though.

Finding the New Tretyakov was a little long-winded because the Garmin map had placed it and all the roads in flagrantly wrong places, and omitted two bridges, but it ended up being open later than we thought it would so we went in.  It had an interesting exhibit of posters: our iPhone translation program was constantly busy trying to decipher as many Russian words on posters as possible.  Another room featured American artists from Russian families, like Mark Rothko.  Another Russian-American artist was a guy we hadn’t heard of, Pavel Tchelitchew, who had some interesting 1930’s works that would remind you of Body Worlds.  The permanent collection included a reproduction of a 1930s exhibit of constructionist sculptures, the sculptures remade and positioned from photos of the original exhibit.  We were pretty worn out after all that, and Lonely Planet’s favorite Georgian restaurant was nearby, and we had lots of good food.

Saturday we returned to Red Square, and got in line to see Lenin.  It took about an hour to go through the line, and about 30 seconds to walk through the otherwise dark room where his head and hands are brightly lit to eerie effect.  Then we got Kremlin tickets, checked out several cathedrals inside, including one where most of the tsars are buried.  After that we got tickets to see the Armory, a museum where there was lots of state jewelry, including Faberge eggs, a huge room showing various diplomatic gifts given from Europe through the centuries (at least half made by German artisans), a few thrones, and carriages spanning 300 years.  No time to see the diamonds.  You go blind from that many jewels anyway.

Another hard day of touring — we headed for a nice Russian restaurant, but didn’t have dinner jackets with us, so we settled for an adjacent Azerbaijani restaurant:  Caucasus food again.

When we returned to our hostel, our room door was ajar.  There were different people inside, and all of our stuff was gone.  There was a note on the door that it had all been moved to a different room.  We had to go get the key to the new room, where we found everything in good shape.  The new room had a double bed — perhaps they wanted us to have that because we’d grumbled earlier about their assumptions that two guys wouldn’t want a double.  But moving all of our stuff with no notice made us grumble even more.  Strange place, that hostel.

I mentioned earlier that the subways run every two minutes.  That turned out to be the case on all lines on all days at all times of day that we were riding subways.  It’s so much nicer when you don’t have to wait 10 or 15 minutes for a train.  It was actually very impressive.  Each station is differently decorated, and they’re all pretty monumental.  Maybe someday we’ll just go on a tour of Moscow metro stations.

Sunday we went to an outdoor market located well outside the central area, on the advice of the hostel operator (it was in the Lonely Planet book as well).  It turned out to be an excellent place to buy souvenirs:  good prices, lots of what I suppose is high quality, and many things to choose from in very close proximity.  Again, we headed for a nice Russian restaurant, but it was closed, and we settled for a nearby tourist restaurant, because we had a train to catch and didn’t have time to mess around.  The tourist restaurant was on Old Arbat Street which is the true Fisherman’s Wharf of Moscow and it was fun to watch all the people go by and pose with fiberglass statues that advertised restaurants.

A man was handing out flyers for a tattoo parlor.  Does anybody besides me think it’s odd that a person’s sense of what his skin ought to look like for the rest of his life, would be influenced by a leafletter on a big tourist street?  I have a lifelong wish to interview unintrospective people about their motives — Woody Allen iconically attempts this in “Annie Hall”.

I really enjoyed Moscow.  It seemed like the residents enjoy it as well.  It’s very backwards for the big city people to be less threatening in their postures than the ones farther away.  Imagine if New York City behaved more like Mankato.  We had espresso and fresh-squeezed juice every day (for a price).

Back to Civilization

August 20th, 2009 11:24 am by Dave

After our cushy two-night train ride, we arrived in Moscow. We decided to take the metro to our hotel, which was pretty easy, and avoided stressing over being ripped off by taxi drivers. It really helps having detailed street maps of Moscow in our GPS.

Our initial arrival at our hostel was a little sketchy — there were no signs whatsoever: we typed in a code at a blank door, went up a couple flights of stairs and walked through another blank door. Also, all the management was still asleep. We left the luggage, went out for breakfast (which was relatively expensive, especially the 200 ml of fresh-squeezed orange juice, the first this trip, for $12; it was also nice to have espresso instead of Nescafe), and when we got back, the managers were there. But the hostel’s Wi-Fi is deliciously fast and reliable and free, and we caught up with many postponed e-mail tasks (including figuring out why all of Ray’s e-mail had disappeared: it turned out his e-mail program at home had gotten launched and had sucked it all off the server). And now, as you see, we have finally gotten around to posting the large volume of text we’ve written since the last time we had a reasonable connection in Irkutsk.

Moscow subways are great. They’re cheap (60 cents a ride), they seem to run about every two minutes, and they’re not too hard to figure out even though there’s not much English. And many of the stations are very artfully decorated.

And even despite the catching up on the Internet, and waiting for the management, we got in some good touring and eating today. We’ll take some time and compose our thoughts and recollections and post them soon.

Continental Breakfast

August 20th, 2009 11:09 am by Ray

We entered Europe a couple of hours ago at the boundary of Permskaya, without fanfare or visible change.  Still the birch forests, often dead (I haven’t the language skills to ask) and moribund factories, still railroad workers in their traffic orange vests watching the train go by until they can continue what it was they were doing.  A lady from the restaurant car came by to sell us breakfast: salmon and dill on bread, 2 for 160 rubles.  Train food at train food prices.  One of the salmon sandwiches turned out to be what the sushi restaurants call “ikura”.  “Ikra” is the Russian word for caviar.  I wonder whose word it was first?

Turbaza Snezhny Bars

August 20th, 2009 11:07 am by Ray

The next two days were spent driving back to Abakan via western Tuva, for a change of scenery.  The first 300 km or so were fairly similar, one Wyoming valley with birch forest after another.  We turned north at Al-Dovurak, after taking some faraway pictures of its massive open-air asbestos mine, the largest in the world.  Soon we were climbing out of the valley over high passes into beautiful river canyons, and crossed from Tuva into Khakassia with our second Soviet Moment.

The border between the provinces of Tuva and Khakassia is a bigger deal than most national borders, even the United States if you’re old and a citizen.  (I can’t answer for other travelers to the US.)  The Russian militsiya go through a phenomenal number of gestures that result in zero increase in security to the state.  Just for a start, everything is done on paper, in handwriting.  This is not how the modern police state keeps track, this is “just work”.  And, the level of literacy in the border police was not high.  I’m guessing our passport control guy had never seen a US passport, Roman writing, and may have been illiterate entirely.  He took my passport, and turned to a random page and started copying from it onto a loose sheet of typing paper.

It happened that the page held my Mali visa from 2006.  Mali makes its full page paste-in visas by  cutting and pasting from the front page of your passport, so it includes your photo, but they rearrange the text.  Without any knowledge of Romanji, Ivan began to write my name:


He could not be dissuaded from continuing.  The KGB will record that Multi Thomas Washington entered Khakassia on a snow-drizzled evening in the middle of August.

We pulled into Snow Leopard Camp a half hour or so after they lifted the gate  It appeared to be a sauna and hiking resort with several wooden cabins, wasted on us who were only staying overnight.

The people at Turbaza Snezhny Bars (Camp Snow Leopard) natter on and on in warp speed Russian without checking to see if you are listening or understanding.  I wonder if our native Tuva speaking guide even keeps up with them.  I want my dour Russians back.

Fortunately, they guided us to the gift shop.  We bought t-shirts and some birch bark containers to preserve stolen hotel soap; but hotel soap with the name of the hotel is also going the way of post cards.  You grow up thinking that things are a fixture of civilization, and then you discover they were just very long fads which are coming to an end, like the Enlightenment.

For some reason, our driver, the Tuvan Chester A. Arthur, drove back to Kyzyl by himself that night, leaving Choodaraa and us.  He did not say goodbye.  Not even hold his hand out for a tip.  I had been hoping at least to learn his name, after five days.  He told us once, but Tuvan names take some practice, like the Russian word for “train station” which is shortened usually to “Zal”.

The area of the Sayan Mountains is stunningly beautiful although there is an unexplained large steel pipe down by the creek, carrying some nonrenewable resource or other from the forest back to Moscow.

Snezhny Bars itself seems vaguely chick camp.  Women outnumber men by a wide margin.  It may be that in winter when it is a hunting camp, the ratio is reversed, and there aren’t gymnastics to disco music on a wooden deck in the morning.  In the gift shop is a bear skin for sale for 8000 rubles.  Men don’t buy animal skins, unless they are Liberace.

Considerable talk of well-being, with banyas and herb tea on the menu; but the food has not been visited by the Dr. Atkins militsiya yet.  Breakfast had a white cereal of a grain I’m not sure of, potato-filled beignets, bread, and sugar.

We did take a walk the next morning on spongy wet ground past hundreds of different kinds of mushrooms and mosses and lichens, and our local guide Matya pointed out several healing herbs.  (“This herb is healing in small doses, hallucinogenic in larger ones, and fatal in large ones.”)  (She didn’t know the word “hallucinogenic” but it’s clear that’s what she meant)  After the walk, we climbed into a different small low-riding non-4×4 Toyota with a new driver who looked like Oddjob and headed to Abakan.  It was clearly not called for to be introduced to him.

Lonely Planet told us to look for “standing stones” by the side of the road, and for a good 20 km or so, there were many mounds each with three or four grave-marker-sized rocks.  Presumably that’s what they were used for many centuries ago.  We stopped in a small museum of the vanished Khakassian culture (they were chased out to Kirghiz a couple of centuries ago and Stalin and the Orthodox Church finished the job) which also contained a menhir of a pregnant woman.  The statue had been there for 4000 years; the Khakassians arrived there about 1500 years ago and made up stories to suit themselves about who she was and what her powers were.  She stands 2.5 meters above the ground and 1.5 meters below the ground and had been removed to a museum once, but brought back to live in a small glass-walled yurt after protest by some remaining local pagans.  There is always something sad about the descendants of extinguished cultures dressing in old costumes and going through certain motions for tourists.

The performers at the Shushenskoe Lenin Exile museum and Colonial Williamsburg do the same thing, to say nothing of Renaissance Faires, but it’s different when it’s dress-up by the dominant culture.  They got to decide where flush toilets and iPhones and atheism fit into their class structure.  The Indians didn’t.

At one point we walked around a modern cemetery which had been built around one of these mounds.  Cemeteries in rural Russia are different from any I’ve seen:  each family’s area has a little railing around it, and often a picnic table inside.  More recent graves are decorated with many garish fake wreaths with many colors of ribbons:  it’s like Christmas all year round.  There weren’t any wreaths upon the neolithic dolmens; after 30 centuries they had been forgotten.

There was just time to eat before getting on the train at Abakan.  Two successive drivers (there was a change of driver at the train station, our second change of the day) had not heard of Lonely Planet’s recommendation, so forget that.  Chodaraa thought to take us to an Irish Pub but we rejected that.  Irish Pubs are common here.  This isn’t quite a long enough vacation to be indulging snarky curiosity on how the Russians do Irish Pubs, New York Pizza (another common theme) or Sushi.  I have a personal rule about sushi three thousand kilometers from the nearest ocean.  Don’t even eat sushi in Denver.  I know that it’s all frozen in the South Atlantic for distribution to Tokyo and San Francisco; I’ve seen the tuna icebergs at Tsukiji; but I pretend I haven’t.

We had a quick dinner at a Serbian restaurant which was playing Buena Vista Social Club on its stereo, and got on the overnight train hotel to Novosibirsk.  Even though we were in second class, we didn’t share a room:  instead of having a cabin with four beds, we had a half-cabin with two beds:  there is one of these in each car, sometimes used by the provodnitsa, the lady who sees after the train car, sometimes by travelers.

Our night in Novosibirsk to take a train break was kind of dumb.  The hotel’s location was perfect for Russian businessmen with their own cars, but was a little far from downtown, and we had to take taxis because our lack of language skills didn’t let us find out about buses or microbuses or trolleys.  Despite their advertising on the Internet, encouraging English-speaking customers to go there, no one on the staff really spoke English, except for someone on a cell phone who confirmed that the room with one double bed that we’d ordered on the Internet was actually what we wanted.  The Internet in the hotel was via either modem (maybe that’s why they sold it in units of five hours) or some completely impenetrable form of Wi-Fi, so we gave up on it.  We took a trip into town and had some good Georgian food (where else can you get pork kebabs?!) and found a decent Internet cafe.  But, without the computer with us we couldn’t really post.

Now we’re on a 48-hour train ride to Moscow going first class on a super-nice train, the Siberiac.  When we entered, the little table was covered with junk food which we’re still not sure if was included with our ticket or is more like a hotel minibar which we pay for stuff except for what we don’t eat or crush — we’ll find out at the end.  There are multiple outlets in the plush two-person cabin, instead of zero, so we can keep the computer and battery chargers and phone charged.  And when the train ride is over, we’ll be in a modern city which may be somewhat more cosmopolitan and tourist-friendly than the ones we’ve been in.  Hope we don’t have to bribe any policemen.

The Trans-Siberian railway is pretty glorious, just like I knew it would be when I read about it in the Weekly Reader and got a train ride from Stockton to Sacramento on the Vista-Dome for my birthday.

Our room is upholstered in blue crushed velvet, with large mirrors front and back creating and endless-Hall effect.  The food in the PECTOPAH car is actually good.  The waitresses are flirty, we sort of  talked with a geographer mapping Northern Siberia, and had Siberian Corona beer since we don’t have to be alert on the twenty meter walk back to the compartment which the provodnitsa has locked for us without even being asked…

And we are seeing Russia like the most major Andy Warhol film out our window, or the largest painting in the world which was cut up at the end of the 19th century but not before it inspired a young Thomas Alva Edison to invent a motion picture camera because looking at a 2500 foot long panorama was so lame.

(Footnote: Although the American painting was the one which sprang to mind, the Hermitage Museum is restoring a panorama made for the 1900 Paris exhibition advertising the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  It was a popular art form back in the day.)

Siberia out the window is at least minimally live.  The birch trees wave in the wind, the seed pods of summer flowers are stirred up by the passing train, the endless gondola cars filled with coal rolling to Europe to heat the continent for the winter.  And filthy tank cars, dripping with nameless black chemicals and an occasional skull and crossbones visible with the Yukos logo.  And other mysterious railroad cars, like the conveyor belt cars that appear to have the purpose of stirring up the gravel.  And some brand new bright red tank cars, and the old brick towers in most of the stations we fly past too fast to focus the camera, even if other trains ande concrete buildings would stay out of the way.

Villages with decorated shutters abound, but not so much as abandoned Soviet factories.  The ubiquity of decaying factories and collectives in every part of the country surpasses any part of the American rust belt.  We are told that the Communists built factories in complete disregard to economic viability or need for products wherever it was thought that workers needed jobs.  With the devolution in 1989, all these factories closed.  No telling what the workers are doing now.

Our first really Soviet moment

August 20th, 2009 11:03 am by Ray

Shortly after we arrived back at the yurt camp this afternoon, three immigration people showed up at the door of the yurt with Chodaraa, and later the camp cook since Artur is gone west.  The three (two in the kind of Soviet uniform that makes your head look small, and one in rather badly fitting counterfeited clothes) wanted us to detail how we had spent every day since we arrived in Russia, and how we were going to spend every day until we left.  Since I am such an anorak, it was easily done, although they walked off with three pages of the paper copy of my itinerary.  We have tickets and all to show.  But they spent an hour hand-copying this all on sheets of paper they had, to report on the interrogation; and copying everything by hand out of our passports and all.  Nobody acted officious or anything.  Tuvans do not have Game Faces the way Russians do.  But they didn’t really smile, until the end, when the fellow who looked vaguely Mexican said that it was “just work”.

Chodaraa said she hadn’t ever seen anything like this.  I think she isn’t old enough to really remember.

As she translated to us, the heart of the matter is this:

  • This yurt camp, Biy-Khem, doesn’t have an address.
  • Artur, the manager, has since time immemorial been writing down his home address in Kyzyl as the address of record for all the guests at his camp.
  • For some reason, today the authorities decided to get angry about this.  We were the only people around to harass.  Artur isn’t here, as mentioned.  Furthermore, the camp is completely occupied by his brother, who is having the baby hair cutting ceremony for his child, that you can see in “Weeping Camel”.  The cultural affinities between Mongolians and Tuvans are strong.

It’s been a bad police day.  Coming out of Kyzyl to the camp, our driver got hassled for 20 minutes about car registration.  When he left, he was driving really fast, like over 100 on the badly paved part of the road out to camp.  I asked Dave when we got back, if he thought the driver was mad and he said definitely.

Holy cow.  I’m typing this in our yurt, and the driver just came and set up his picnic table in it.  They are serious about serving dinner in here because the camp is occupied by the brother’s party.  This must mean that the concert also will be held in here…what a bust for the poor musicians.

OK, we just had the concert.  All the songs were about horses and ladies, but mostly horses.  And it wasn’t totally a bust:  we bought all three CDs they were selling.

Old Believers

August 20th, 2009 10:34 am by Ray

On Thursday, August 13, we were driven to the town of Erzhey, Kaa-Hem district over what the Lonely Planet calls an “appallingly muddy road” and they mean it.  Erzhey is a town of “Old Believers”, a religious sect which broke away from the Orthodox in the 18th century because they wanted to cross themselves holding two fingers together rather than three, which the Orthodox had decided was the way to do it so God would let you into Heaven.  We are not making this up.  Anyway, they got persecuted by everybody and moved far into the forest, where they still live.

One does not actually get to talk to the Old Believers, at least not when the whole village of Sisim is out making hay. Sisim is the most personable village, by report.  Erzhey, across the river by a motorless cable ferry which is built as one big rudder that holds a car, is shy although not hostile, but the third village runs and hides if camera crews show up.  The Old Believers don’t have roadside stands selling jam like the Amish — actually they do have a store, but it’s in Kyzyl,  But there is a cabin camp near Erzhey and we walked into town with our guide  who remembered that she had had a teacher six years ago who lived there, and we went calling on him.

Sergey is an Old Believer by genealogy, but his house is the most personal and modern expression you can imagine.  Belief in one’s own aesthetic never gets you into social criticisms such as travel guides, under the name “Believer”.  It’s only when you believe in somebody else’s system, that you are called a Believer.  Interesting.

Anyway, with Sergey, forget the 18th century, or any other.  He is a retired architect and he has placed together a collection of souvenir tourist kitsch from all over the world — OK, stop what you’re thinking, don’t visualize a “highly personal” clutter of stiffy baskets in a trailer park in Florida, or any kind of Victorian drawing room of elephant foot umbrella boxes.  Think sleek, think minimalist kitsch.  The souvenir plates from India and Singapore hang in spare squares over the fireplace on a whitewashed wall.  The ceiling lighting is mounted on white squares over recessed blue squares of a shade Donna Karenina won’t think of for four years.  The sofa is perfect functional modernist not bizarre at all until you realize you haven’t seen anything of that shape ever, it’s about as close to existing sofas as it is to a rumble seat.  Crazy textured blue plastic wallpaper.  Sergey likes blue.  Jesus appears once, as a modernist silhouette in a deep frame, almost a shadow box.

We didn’t get back to camp until 8.  Our driver had come out looking for us and the translator — cell phone service is promised for Erzhey within the next week.  The camp people had caught some fish and put them, whole, into soup.  Yum.

Afterwards it was time for our contractual obligation banya.  A banya is a traditional Russian bath, I think it’s one of the things the exit police will check at the border so you have to do it but I thought it was kind of like heterosexual sex, it’s like, why isn’t this the greatest thing ever, am I doing it wrong?

It started with great hope; as our driver, a handsome young Tuvan with about the best sideburns you can get on an Asian younger than Ho Chi Minh invited us out to the bath, accompanied by about a twelve-year-old blond Russian whose scowl hadn’t congealed yet so he still looked like pecan divinity.  So I thought, well, here is at least the promise of inter-racial -cultural -generational -affectational social consternation.  But after they had demonstrated to us that mixing boiling water with cold water made warm water, they left, and Dave and I were standing in a warm room facing what is essentially a shower with a bad user interface.  There were also some dead branches that I think you are supposed to hit yourself with but I’d feel pretty dumb doing that.

It took me a while to get used to my own hot tub, too.  Hedonism is kind of boring.  But my hot tub at home is now fun, what with the memories of naked target practice through the loquat tree and so forth.

The Perseids were good that night.

In the morning, tomatoes and cucumbers with freshly soured cream, and single-cow milk in the tea.  Tomato Tourism report: the tomatoes we’ve encountered here seem to be of the same general kind as what you get in Safeway, which is to say, bred to be firm, but they are picked ripe and so have a much more developed flavor.  Everything which can, has dill in it, which is to say, everything which is not physically anti-matter or dark energy.  The gardens are full of dill, cabbage, and potatoes.

Our driver is given to picking up hitchhikers.  I don’t think they are really hitchhikers; I think he’s related  or friend to everyone in Tuva and is just doing favors.  After breakfast, it was announced that three Old Believers would be going into the Big City with us (not Kyzyl; a hamlet at the end of the paved road some 32 km from camp).  So they got grimly into the back seat and anticipated the joys of Heaven while suffering through everything earthly.

“Smile, God loves you,” does not translate into Russian.  The Old Believers make regular Russians look like Mary Tyler Moore.  Even for Christians they are sourpusses — not a hint of Mormon Prozac, just glowering stoicism.  The child seemed to have a swollen eye.  Child Protective Services doesn’t get out east.  It was a gloomy day with smatterings of rain.  Everything fit.

Tuva or Bust

August 20th, 2009 10:31 am by Ray

We woke up in Abakan and after a short look around were approached by our guide and her driver.  The drive from Abakan to Kyzyl will not seem unfamiliar to anyone from the Rockies or the Sierras.  You drive through a lot of passes that look like Nederland and then the minute you get to the Tuva border it changes to looking like Minden, Nevada.

On the way, we went to a museum built on the site in Shushenskoe, at the southern edge of Krasnoyarsk province, where Lenin was exiled in Siberia from 1897 to 1900.  It includes several of the actual buildings where he lived, others of the era which were moved to the site, and others which are reconstructions.  Apparently it’s quite authentic.  It was built for the centenary of his birth.  It was interesting seeing all the old pots and pans and sickles and plows — we got a barrel-making demonstration by a guy using tools of the era.  The Lenin statue is not original.

Later, we stopped at the house of a couple who have made a business of serving lunch to tourists.  We’d had some fairly fancy food in Irkutsk, especially at Hotel Zvezda, but this simple meal was my favorite in Russia so far.  Several different salads (mushroom, cabbage, carrot, fern), homemade pickles, barbecued chicken (we haven’t seen much chicken for awhile), and jelly, sour cream, and cottage cheese on homemade bread.  You can’t believe Russian sour cream.  The stuff at Safeway is so pathetic.  The homemade schnapps was a little strong, though.

We got to the Yurt camp called “Biy-Khem” at 5:47.  The name means “Big Yenisey River” in Tuvan.  Kyzyl is the confluence of the Big and Little Yenisey Rivers.  “Kyzyl” means “Red”.  The city used to be named White something but the Reds changed the name.

That evening there was a big tour-bus party in our yurt camp (allegedly the president of Ericsson, and the guy from the BBC who invented the phrase “world music” were there but I didn’t find out until the next morning) which caused there to be mass quantities of food (and also a throat singing concert and two shaman healing rituals).  This food was quite Tuvan (ie unseasoned sheep parts) and between its plain meatiness and our being bloated from lunch and eating our train-food salami before it went bad, we ended up feeling bad about leaving so much of it on the table.  I think our guide, who is Tuvan, was disappointed that I didn’t seem as excited about it as I had about lunch.  I don’t know that the Turkic languages have a word for “full”.

The next day we toured the Tuvan capital Kyzyl, a city with 100000 residents, one third Russian and two thirds Tuvan.  The first thing we did was to butt ahead of hundreds of people who had lined up in threatening weather since before opening time to see various relics (cremation “stones”, teeth, etc.) of various Buddhist lamas which were on display for the last of three days at this museum.  They kept the line moving about as fast as the moving sidewalk in front of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.  Other highlights included a monument marking the center of Asia, the usual war dead monuments (one must carefully ask Which War and On Whose Side), a small Buddhist temple, and a small recent museum to the victims of Stalin’s religious persecution.

It’s not easy to tell where Tuvans stand on Communism.  Stalin killed their entire cultured class in 1937.  Yet the statues of Lenin are everywhere.  Our guide stated she didn’t think there was any support for the idea of an independent Tuva because there wasn’t the economic basis for it in a country that small.  (Visual counterpoint: a photo of Vladimir Putin fishing with Prince Albert of Monaco on vacation along the Yenisei, hanging in the main city museum.  Aside from the special exhibit of Buddhist relics, the museum is pretty small town.  But my point is about the size viability of Monaco.  Prince Albert was shown catching a rather small fish, for a head of state, not much larger than the fish that holds Justin’s Prince Albert.)

Don’t doubt that there was a great deal of hostility toward the priesthood in 1937.  People who have No On 8 and Free Tibet bumper stickers on their Subarus are invited to resolve according to minimally consistent philosophical strictures, what their attitude toward lamas and temples would be if the United States were run by, say, Mormons, for 4 or 5 centuries, with full rein to enforce lethally their attitudes toward women, homosexuals, democracy, the adjudication of truth, and other cosmetic asides to culture.  The Communists who took over Mongolia, Tuva, Russia, Tibet, and China, were not facing a united front of peasants defending the superstitious aristocracy who had forever been kidnapping their children to monasteries and stupefying their parents with larcenous religious mumbo jumbo.  There were a lot of angry slaves ready for a new century of mumbo jumbo, and some orgiastic destruction to boot.

Moving along to the new mumbo jumbo, time for some shopping.  Still looking for a map tube.  Finally settled on a one dollar broom handle.  You can wrap a map around a broom handle and it is almost as safe as in a tube.  It’s cool to go in little hardware stores and see where the local toilet handles come from.  You get tired of looking at ceramic deer and flower appliqued boxes in which to store them.  Some Russian teenagers with their game faces in abeyance asked us if we had a dollar bill they could put in a wallet they had just bought.  Placing a nice bill in a wallet brings good luck.  Right.  Allegedly the banks wouldn’t change 30 rubles for them.  Ray gave them one.  The cultures which most approve of begging traditionally require something of the beggar; a good story is such a boon.

Dinner was back at camp, a Tuvan/Russian ratatouille.

Kalinka Malinka

August 20th, 2009 10:30 am by Ray

Every time I leave the house, let alone on vacation, my mission gets hijacked.  When we got back on the hydrofoil from Bolshie Koty on the shore of Lake Baikal, I made Dave buy a map which is too big for the poster tube that we are carrying with us.  The map is lovely and cost ten dollars and we are going to spend the rest of the trip trying to find a poster tube, which will probably cost more than the map, so that it can make it back to California undamaged.  It will arrive in shreds anyway.  Or else folded up when I get mad and give up.

It was drizzling in Krasnoyarsk but for some reason we took the map with us instead of leaving it at Left Luggage.  So the first thing we had to do was find a plastic bag to cover the map, let alone a tube.  Since it was Monday, all the museums were closed, so I treated the malls as museums (this works remarkably well) and we went from store to store looking for tubes and being impressed by the variety of shoes that are available to Russians.

We came close on the tube project once.  Well twice; for 600 rubles we could have bought a flimsy plastic telescoping tube that was made to hold a tripod or some other artifact that could fend for itself more than a rolled up map.

But the first failure was instructive.  On the third floor of a not purely shoe mall (but they had a floor devoted to them) was the wrapping department and there were a lot of stiff cardboard rolls holding scraps of wrapping paper, any one of which would have been suitable, but the girl there wouldn’t give us one.  It wasn’t a language difficulty.  It was a social failure.

She didn’t realize that she had the personal power to take the cardboard tube out of the center of a roll of wrapping paper and give it to us, leaving the wrapping paper to stand free in its tub with all the other tubed and untubed papers until it was used up.  She offered to sell us the last two square meters of wrapping paper for more twice what the two square meter map cost, which gives you an idea of how modern society values relatively, appearance versus information.

Maybe her boss really would have sent her to Siberia, I don’t know.  She was already in Siberia.

It’s a common first world middle class failure.  No African or Senator fails to realize that he has the power to negotiate anything he can lay his hands on.  But people in Safeway don’t bargain.  (Once when the power went out at Piazza’s in Palo Alto and all the cash registers failed, a clerk waved me and my bag through for a twenty dollar bill, but it’s an exception.)

And then there is also the Russian failure to want to help.

No society can be at once a worker’s paradise and a Consumer Paradise.  A worker’s paradise is about keeping everybody at work and a consumer paradise is about keeping everyone on vacation, and the two do not intersect.  Russia is still, at heart, a worker’s paradise.  Nobody outside our guides, have we met yet, who has any other idea than that he is supposed to punch the clock in the morning and in the evening, and spend all the intervening time evading our importuning glances.  The girl in the store — well, enough of this Eisenhower-era propaganda.  Socialized health care in America will be just like this, and it will still be better than what we’ve got.  Pre-existing conditions are a typical American elaboration of the basic mammalian behavior of evading an importuning glance.

It then stopped raining and got hot so we had to carry the raincoats and the tube.

I have heard of this thing called recently a “game face”, which I gather is what used to be called a scowl, that you give to the person opposite in the ring or on the field or during the middle managers’ process reorg meeting.  American Negro spokesmodelsof the H. Rap Brown/Eminem tendency always have such facial expressions during music videos.

People with Asperger’s don’t know how to make a game face, and now that Asperger’s is having its Elvis year, an industry will sprout in teaching them how to act stupid and aggressive; new industry being vital to the economy since manufacturing, information processing, finance, and management have all been outsourced overseas to save money and now everybody is surprised that Americans don’t have any.

Most Russians seem to present “game faces” most of the time.  I don’t know what it is.  I know that the dourness of Russians has been commented on before, and it’s being commented on again.  They don’t seem happy to have you in their town, with the exception of a few punks, in the 1980’s definition before the dour professional Negro culture-makers slapped on a more antisocial definition.  Some kids with streaky hair and pale faces wanted our picture in Irkutsk.

“Russians are snakes,” said the Oregon wrestler on the train to Ulaan Baatar,  “No, they’re survivors.”

There are always nice people, especially the guy who directed us to the coolest restaurant in Krasnoyarsk, Kalinka Malinka.  It is at 56.01076 N 92.85602 E, address Mira 91A, if you are ever in Krasnoyarsk.  We had walked into it earlier and had been turned off by what appeared to be steam-table tired old food, but the guy we met later that day insisted, so we gave it a second chance.  There are rooms behind the front counter.  We were seated and given menus, each page of which had a preparation time on it, so then we knew we’d be getting food made to order.

Malinka is the Krasnoyarsky version of Walzwerk, the restaurant in the Mission district that features East German cooking and East German kitsch.  Malinka’s walls have Soviet propaganda on them and the food is great.  Also, the menu is in pictures if you are Russian challenged.  There isn’t much English out here in Siberia.  We’re using the various iPhone translation apps quite a bit.  Siberia is the only place I’ve been in the last twenty years where it was genuinely difficult to find someone around who speaks English.

Or maybe there are English speakers and they just don’t feel like helping.  People don’t jump in here, grabbing you by the arm and taking you to the place you were looking for like the Japanese, or practising their English like the Chinese, or offering you a tour of town for a few thousand CFA Francs or their sister for a few thousand baht.  How do you deal with being a tourist in a place where people don’t want your money?  Maybe they all have a special kind of game face Asperger’s.  Maybe they are hung over.

You may gather we didn’t have that great a time in Krasnoyarsk.  It was problematic.  Usually the problem of finding restaurants is left to the guidebook, but Lonely Planet guides for Mongolia and for Russia have been kind of striking out, listing restaurants which in fact aren’t actually there anymore.

Very few people asked to take our picture.  In the movie version this is how you first know that we are dead.

The last young guy who wanted to take our photo told us about Malinka.  I had soljanka.  Totally different from Walzwerk and totally good.  Dave had latkes, whatever they are called here.  We took the wrong bus, got off when it became obvious we weren’t going in the right direction (even without a city map loaded, the GPS can help a lot) and walked to the train station and got our luggage back —

n.b. to those in the Krasnoyarsk train station.  The left luggage room is only open once in a while.  The luggage handlers are also insolent and idle but they have the decorative body types that come with hauling luggage and you don’t mind just looking at them lounging around.  Saki made a similar argument about cats.

Then there is the automatic luggage locker section, which also has a lady watching it and requesting your passport, which makes it less than automatic, and she’s not open after 1830 but you go to the other room then and — imagine a city of a million people without a 24 hour left luggage room!

You don’t have to.  America is full of cities of a million people that don’t even have train service.

Organ Recital

August 20th, 2009 10:28 am by Ray

After we took our luggage to the railroad station in Irkutsk, we walked across the bridge to the downtown area and explored cute churches and ugly soviet squares and determined that since the fall of communism, the Russian National Psyche has decided to replace Peasant-Worker-Soldier control of the means of production, with Shoes.  Shoes rule.  There are two whole malls right next to each other right east of the main square in Irkutsk, which consist of nothing but shoe stores.  It is an unusual sensation, almost dreamlike, to go into a large building with dozens of shops and discover they all sell nothing but shoes.  Not even socks.  And the next level up, the same.  And next door, another whole mall with two floors of shoe stores.

But it isn’t so strange.  Think of souks, thirty traders in a row crouched on the ground in Fes selling screwdrivers, or cardamom.  We are in Central Asia.  Maybe commercial practice moved directly from souks to malls without passing through market research.

Serendipity led us across the street from shoes to an organ recital in a repurposed Catholic Church.  It started out with Bach, and went gradually more modern and experimental.  I was very impressed by the variety of the audience.  Usually in the West if you go to any show more ancient than hip hop, there are the old people and the kids they have dragged along and nobody in between who has any choice in the matter, and you know that rap performances in 2025 will be attended exclusively by old white guys with leather patches on their elbows who imagine they are listening to current music.

Not in Irkutsk.  The audience was a pretty fair representation of the age demographic of society at large.  There were kids there with their parents, but there were lots of teenagers there on their own, even boys, some of them actually straight.  And twenty and thirty year olds and on up.  Afterwards, everybody went up on stage and took pictures of each other with their telephones, posing with the keyboard.

I realized during this recital that the ancestor of all of us in the music business is the page turner.  On stage with the organist was a kind of Missing Link.  He humbly turned the pages for the resident master; but he also maneuvered the stops, and even three levers down by the foot pedals that coupled the keyboards and pedalboard.  So every time the music required, Smithers would run around to the right or left side of the organ and pull out some stops with hands or feet, and he also manipulated a lucite baffle over the higher pipe registers.

Doesn’t it seem that everyone who serves the ones who play the notes is descended from that page turner?  Evolution had just brought a timbre and volume selector into existence.  Next, the video editor.

We took the tram back to the station and had piroshki burgers and got on the train and woke up in Krasnoyarsk.