If you are visiting Russia for the first time, remember this: When paying for items, have exact change whenever possible. Small bills often won't cut it; you'll need exact change.
I've had Russians try to pay me my change in peanuts (literally, this happened) or simply ignore the issue entirely and give me nothing, but either way Russians almost never have enough change to break whatever banknote you're ready to offer, even if the note is only 500 rubles (less than $20 USD). When the lady tried to pay me my change in peanuts, the bill had been 60 rubles (more than two dollars) and I gave her a note worth 100 rubles (less than four dollars).
And of course ATMs (банкомат) almost always give you huge bills. Once I withdrew 5,000 rubles and received a 5,000-ruble note, worth about $175 on paper but in reality basically worthless. I used it at Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts (Музей изобразительных искусств им. А.С. Пушкина). The woman selling tickets balked, but I shrugged my shoulders as if to say, You've got more than 5,000 works of priceless European art so I'm pretty sure you can handle 5,000 rubles.
In Saint Petersburg I found an ATM offering the choice of small bills. I withdrew 3,000 rubles (~$100 USD) and received sixty 50-ruble notes, basically two-dollar bills. For Russia, such small bills are perfect. Absent this option, another thing you can do is withdraw a larger amount, and then process a second withdrawal for the smallest amount possible. That way you'll have immediate cash for whatever it is you are doing. To break large bills, try global businesses, like McDonald's or Starbucks (CTAPBAKC); if you are not in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, good luck.
Edit (Dec 2012): Still true. My god. Russians, never enough change.
28 March 2011
If you are visiting Russia for the first time, remember this: When paying for items, have exact change whenever possible. Small bills often won't cut it; you'll need exact change.
23 March 2011
Moscow's metro system serves somewhere between five and 10 million people per day. It is remarkably efficient, and my favorite part is that you pay a set fee no matter where you are going, which means you never have to explain yourself or struggle buying the correct ticket. Just buy a ticket and transfer as much as you need to transfer. Of course it is color-coded, like any metro, and the station names are written in Cyrillic and also transliterated into English. You almost never have to wait for a train. More often than not a train will arrive within 30 seconds of you reaching the platform, and in more than two weeks and probably two-dozen rides I don't think I've ever had to wait longer than two or three minutes, and definitely never as long as five.
Don't mess with Moscow taxis. Unless you speak decent Russian they will be expensive and too much of a hassle. If you must take a taxi, have a Russian friend negotiate the price in advance.
Today I visited one of Moscow's first forays into capitalism, the Izmaylovskaya flea market.
Izmaylovskaya (Измайловская) Market, which is easily found after exiting the Partizanskaya (Партизанска) metro station, not, as you might think, the Izmaylovskaya station, is the best place I've found in Moscow for gifts. There is junk, like anywhere else, but also quality goods at fair prices. Today as soon as I arrived there was a surprise hail storm, and the outdoor market, which is already beautiful with its narrow wooden aisles, was even cooler with hail storming down.
There are matryoshka dolls (a.k.a. babushka dolls or Russian nesting dolls), chess sets, Orenburg shawls (the hair from Orenburg goats is the thinnest in the world, thinner even than mohair or cashmere apparently, and because the goats require a certain climate they can be bred only in Orenburg, which is on the Ural River near the border of Kazakhstan), amber and emerald jewelry, and of course being Russia it is always easy to find Soviet military relics, knives and winter hats.
Moscow is simultaneously probably the most and least Russian city of all. If forced to choose I would say it is the least Russian city of all, since the majority of Russia seems to have nothing in common with Moscow, the same way the majority of America is completely unlike New York City.
By comparison Saint Petersburg is cleaner and more welcoming, with wider streets and a European buzz about its way. There are even signs on Metro doors pleading riders to hold the door open for the person behind them. Frankly I am surprised the signs were written in both English and Cyrillic, because I wouldn't have thought the Russian language had the words to express such a sentiment.
Moscow is bigger, dirtier and its citizens focused on making that money, which is exactly what we pushed on them during the Cold War, no? To each his own, sink or swim, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and chase that dollar. I promise you Moscow listened with both ears. With the exception of what Moscow has indoors (i.e. museums and culture) I'm not sure why you'd ever need to see the city for more than 45 minutes, which in a way makes it a lot like Philadelphia, I suppose.
The Saints Peter and Paul Fortress (Петропа́вловская кре́пость, Petropavlovskaya Krepost) in Saint Petersburg is a nice place to walk around but in hindsight I should have gone to the Russian Museum instead. I didn't realize the museum was open on Mondays. Most everything cultural in Russia is closed on Mondays, across the board almost without exception, but the Russian Museum is an exception. It is closed on Tuesday and yesterday, Tuesday, was my last day in Saint Petersburg.
The fortress was a nice place to walk around, for an hour or two, but ultimately it didn't provide much in the way of excitement. The Neva River, where the fortress is located, was frozen, but not so much that you could walk on it. You could walk along the frozen riverbanks a bit, but there were signs posted in Russian warning you to stay away. Considering Russians are never worried about liability, I took the signs very seriously.
Peter and Paul was built to protect Russia against a Swedish counter-attack during the Great Northern War, which lasted two decades (1700-1721) and of which I know almost nothing.
Adjacent to the fortress is the new Saint Petersburg Zoo, which depending whom you ask is either a waste of time or really great. I had no interest in the zoo, but outside I did see a few people peddling photos with monkeys dressed up in children's clothing. As wrong as it is, it is impossible to not see a monkey dressed up in a little boy's winter jacket and not think for at least two seconds how great it would be to have a pet monkey.
20 March 2011
While inhaling my terrible Russian coffee I noticed a young girl, probably seven or eight years old, enjoying her breakfast: candy cigarettes. Smoking really is the national pastime of Russia, the secondhand smoke of which explains my constant hacking cough. I visited the АПТЕКА (pharmacy) with a note in Russian that said something along the lines of, "I've had a terrible cough for weeks. Please give me your strongest cough syrup." Russian cough syrup tastes better than American cough syrup (anise/vanilla but without the medicinal aftertaste) and works as well or better.
After breakfast but before cough syrup, I visited the State Hermitage (Государственный Эрмитаж). The Hermitage Museum is the world's largest art museum and must also rival in popularity. I waited in line for two and a half hours; granted, it was Sunday but it was also below zero and snowing heavily. Say what you will about Russians, but they appreciate and support the arts more than any other culture I have experienced: museums, theatre, dance, smoking as art form, etc.
There was even smoking inside the Hermitage. Yeah, it was hidden in the bathrooms but still close enough where you can smell it by the artwork: Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphael, da Vinci, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, apparently none of whom are worthy of stepping outside to light up.
19 March 2011
Today I visited the Kremlin Armoury, the oldest museum collection in all of Russia. It houses a collection so gaudy it is almost vulgar. Even items made by Fabergé don't really stand out in the crowd of jewels, weapons, and royal items including coronation crowns, clothing and carriages.
The 20 or so wooden carriages from the 16th, 17th, 18th and maybe 19th centuries were worth the price of admission alone. There was even a small child's carriage, which was pulled not by horses but by ponies, and security was provided by dwarves.
Besides the ancient wooden carriages and sleds, my favorite items were two royal thrones, and the massive collection of ancient weapons: hatchets, muskets, swords and spears.
Ivan the Terrible's throne was hand-carved ivory, and based on what I've heard of the guy, I was half expecting to see blood stains on the bleached bones of a chair as ornate as any I've ever seen.
There was a double-throne for half-brothers Ivan V (Ivan Alekseyevich Romanov) and Peter I (Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov). Fifteen-year-old Ivan would have been crowned tsar alone but was mentally and physically ill, needing help even to walk, so 10-year-old Peter was crowned as well. He turned out to be Peter the Great. The throne was about 15 feet tall, ornate with a wide chair split down the middle for both brothers, and a square cut out of the back behind Peter's seat. The square was covered in cloth during its day, and a royal assistant sat behind the cloth, whispering instructions to the children to assist them with confusing or complicated royal ceremonies, usually those that involved receiving gifts from anyone wishing to receive a royal audience.
I hear it from ex-pats, native Russians, and I see it with my own eyes. Last night an American who has lived in Moscow for 14 years told me that, on average, a traffic cop in Moscow can clear a quarter-million USD per year. He'll take in probably one million and pay $750,000 up the food chain. Those who pay up the food chain get stationed on the better corners. Those stationed on better corners pull over more drivers, extract more money, pay more money up the food chain, and so on. Whether or not the numbers are accurate is not really important. Just stand on the street corner and watch it all unfold in front of your eyes. There is no attempt to hide anything.
Traffic cops wave cars to the side of the road, and actually many or most don't even bother with making cars pull to the side of the road. Just stop where you are in the middle of the street; everyone else will drive around you. They stop cars without cause in the middle of Moscow, right by the Kremlin, or anywhere else for that matter, and sometimes in less than 30 seconds you'll see the wallet come out, the money get paid, and then the driver is free to go.
Earlier today outside the Kremlin I saw a Russian traffic officer stop three cars (one Range Rover, two BMWs) in fewer than five minutes. The average bribe I have been told is 1,000 rubles (about $35 USD). One of the drivers, you could tell, had been pulled over just because his car was too dirty. It was the middle of the day and the cop made the driver wipe the front of his headlights, pay the quote-unquote fine, and then he was free to go. Expecting a car to be clean during springtime in Moscow is impossible. You have never seen dirtier cars in your life. The streets are full with a winter's worth of dirt, grime and melting snow.
I asked my friend who lives in Moscow, a native Russian who lived in Russia from 1978-1990 (USA between 1990-2005) and again since 2005, why there is so much corruption. She said there are so many people in positions of nominal power, people whose jobs during Soviet times were truly influential but who today wield little to no real power, cogs in the wheels of beauracracy: visa officials, registration officials, basically anybody who is in a position to rubber-stamp approval. These people often refuse to do their jobs unless money is paid, so she says you cannot do things the legitimate way, because when you need to have your car registered, the man or woman behind the desk will say, I don't feel like signing the paper today so why don't you come back on, say, Thursday. This process will continue until you pay the going rate for whatever service you need. In Russia, grease the wheels or the wheels don't turn.
In Russia it is illegal to not register your visa in each new city; however, I haven't bothered to register it at all, namely because the cost of registering the visa (if you have to do it more than two or three times, and I would have had to do it eight or nine times) is more than jsut paying the quote-unquote fine if you are asked by a police officer for your registration paperwork. Apparently they tend to ask only Asian foreigners or ethnic minorities from former Soviet countries. They rarely mess with European or American tourists, I have been told. They are too busy with xenophobia, racism and profiling to remember the Cold War, and most of these cops are too young to even remember the Cold War, so Americans are left largely unbothered.
In short, if you are coming to Russia, don't bother registering your visa. Save your money.
18 March 2011
Both of these exposures are from eastern Siberia.
[After speaking with Harry Fleenor, who serviced the camera in January 2011, before these photos were taken, I learned it is possible to double-expose a frame on the Rolleiflex Type V Automat MX-EVS, so the double exposures may not have been weather-related, and probably weren't, although I can confirm the shutter release will freeze in extreme cold: ~ negative 20-30 degrees Celsius.]
We drove for five hours on the lake, from the village of Khuzhir to the northernmost tip and back, with no problems, but our driver did stop once to test a potential danger zone. He approached the rift and kicked down swiftly with his boot, a strategy that didn't exactly seem foolproof [edit (16.04.11) photos of suspect safety test in progress, added to end of post].
This is inside of her front gate, taken from the guest house and looking toward the main house. Hiding at the bottom of the frame is her dog Фидя ("Feed-ya"). Considering most dogs in Siberia go hungry, the pronunciation of his name is maybe a bit of sad irony. Actually Фидя was pretty well fed, it seemed, but he slept outside in temperatures dropping well below negative 20 degrees Celsius, and the poor guy could have used a new dog toy or two. Instead he played with flattened beer cans and stray pieces of leather from forgotten shoes. He had a great personality but was too skittish to allow me to pet him, not even once during the entire week I was there.
There is no running water on Olkhon Island. Maybe once per week the water truck (Вода) arrives to fill up the huge barrels stored in the banya (traditional Russian steam bath). This water is used for drinking and for bathing. Without running water the only way to bathe is to get really sweaty in the banya, lather yourself up, and then take a bucket full of nearly frozen water and rinse yourself. It will take at least four or five full buckets to get a good rinse, and the first one is always the worst. It is so shockingly cold that it is almost painful (but extremely refreshing).
This is the firewood in the backyard, chopped for heat and also for cooking.
You can see the firepit near the bottom left of the frame. This is where soups are cooked. In warmer months there is more fishing, and if you look closely you can see green fishing nets hung to dry near the top left of the frame. There is also ice fishing in the winter. I was told the locals call it "watching TV," sitting around the ice-fishing hole staring into nothing all day.
Two nights ago I listened to the Moscow Philharmonic at one of the smaller venues inside Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. It seated about 125 people and maybe even fewer than 100. I sat dead center in the very last row, which was also the fifth row from the front. Lots of violins, woodwind and brass instruments, and funny tuxedos with tails; it was pretty great and only 400 rubles.
17 March 2011
I have no idea how they get these boats to sit entirely on top of the ice as opposed to submerged partly below it. They probably dry-dock the boats on land and then wheel them back out onto the water when it is sufficiently frozen.
The cross made of ice is easier to spot in the second photo, but the ice-fishing hole is easier to spot in the first photo (left edge of the frame, bottom third). It is actually not an ice-fishing hole but instead it is a hole where once per year, by tradition, Russians jump into the frozen water, and legend has it that if you jump into the water on this day, and this day only, you will not get sick.
I also saw people using the hole for fresh water. The area was littered with cigarette butts and beer cans, and inside the hole, where the water was shallow, you could see many coins at the bottom. I never did figure out exactly what purpose the cross serves.
Maybe an annual memorial to those lost at sea each year?
There is some strange colored spotting in this photo. I don't know if the negative was damaged during processing or if it was just a poor scan. I am pretty sure the white spots are just dust.
In Moscow, I saw this same tradition but the locks are placed on a sculpture of a tree on a bridge over the Moscow River. A few days ago there was a wedding in progress when I was crossed the bridge in Moscow. Everyone was drinking and smoking and the newlyweds shattered their champagne glasses on the bridge. The photo below is from Irkutsk, though, and the photo below that is the same walkway alongside the Angara River, but from a distance.
This is a no-smoking sign at a Buddhist temple in Nagasaki, Japan. I forget which one.
The flag whipped around so violently that if it caught you in the eye, you might go blind. The bottom photo is indicative of what the captain had to navigate for much of the 20-plus hours.
This photo was taken from a similar location, but looking in a different direction. I think that might be Busan city central in the distance. Down by the rocks and the water's edge you can see a small fishing community where old Korean women balance large buckets of live fish on their heads. If you are a bit adventurous, you can climb down the rocks to get a better view. Be careful, though, because the rocks can be slippery and even icy depending on the weather.
The second photo gives you an idea of how spread out the museum is.
These are the first medium-format photos that I've posted here. Shooting with my Rolleiflex in Siberia was extremely challenging because the shutter-release button would freeze, usually within minutes but at times in less than 60 seconds. So it required a lot of luck and timing.
16 March 2011
Yesterday I visited the Puskin Museum, which houses Moscow's largest collection of European art. The museum is spread across three buildings, but so far I have seen only the building that is mostly an Impressionist collection, names you'd recognize and then some: Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Matisse, Degas, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne, Courbet, Chagall, Kandinsky, et al.
My favorite moment was when one of the old ladies who is supposed to be a security guard but who really just takes naps in a fancy chair in the corner of the room stopped me to examine my tattoo. She spent the better part of 10 minutes examining it from every angle, pulling up my shirt sleeve and taking her glasses on and off to get a better look. She told me it was beautiful, and motioned that it should be placed on the walls alongside the classics.
Today I visited Lenin's Tomb, in Moscow's Red Square, but the mausoleum was closed until the end of April so unfortunately I cannot confirm that Vladimir is still dead. Perhaps the Russians have devised some diabolical plan to bring their revolutionary leader back to life, or perhaps after nearly 90 years of being dead, it is no longer easy to keep the man's body in good enough condition to be on public display five days per week, three hours per day.
Frankly I'm kind of glad the masoleum was closed. Seeing his body was sort of like a trainwreck item on the itinerary: I didn't want to look, but I also couldn't not look.
There has been a push to move Lenin's final resting place to St. Petersburg, so that he can be buried below ground and next to his mother, as was his wish, but I have heard that this is unlikely to happen until the older generation dies and makes way for kids who don't care. Today's older Russians respect him too much to see him go, even if it means disrespecting his final wishes.
Instead of visiting the body I went to a Russian restaurant called Гуд-Биф (Good Beef) and ate filet mignon and a baked potato for 640 rubles (about twenty-five bucks, which is not bad considering you'd pay nearly half that at McDonald's in Moscow for a Big Mac, fries and a Coke). The filet portion was small but the Australian meat was as good as any I've had in America, and the baked potato even better; together it certainly topped staring at a dead guy.
My friend Diana from San Francisco, who now lives in Panama but was born in Russia, has a sister named Katya (short for Катерина, Katerina) who lives in Moscow. The sisters moved out of Russia in late 1990 but Katya moved back to Moscow with her husband in 2005. She owns a custom cake company here, Select Cake Studio. She makes those beautiful cakes that cost thousands of dollars, the cakes that in America are pretty much reserved for expensive weddings. Here in Moscow there are enough people who love lavish parties (and who embezzle government money) that these cakes are often for no good reason other than I want to show you how much money I have.
Katya took me for lunch to one of her favorite restaurants in the city: Барашка.
She goes there often enough where they didn't at all balk when she brought her wire-haired dachshund, Motek, into the restaurant. What a beautiful dog, and also tasty food (the restaurant, not the dog; this is not Korea).
I ate homemade flat pasta with minced meat (lamb, I think) and onions, and also lamb and vegetable soup, plus a drink made from tarragon that was fantastic. Afterward I had my first decent cup of coffee in Russia, not only decent but actually great. The coffee in Russia, even in Moscow, is generally pretty terrible, and across Siberia and the Russian Far East it is worse than you can probably imagine. Your only choice is almost always instant coffee.
Last night I attended a theatre production of "The Gronholm Method," a Russian interpretation of Catalan playwright Jordi Galceran's "El mètode Grönholm."
I didn't know any of this last night. All I knew was that I wouldn't understand any of the dialogue, that the title of the play translated to "The Gronholm Method," and that its premise was four job applicants being compelled to compete against each other and do strange things to land only one job. Or something like that.
I understood a bit of the Russian here and there, and ironically the first words I understood (besides yes and no) was when a character said, "I do not understand." I have probably said those same Russian words more than any others in the past six weeks.
I had less trouble following the storyline than I did at the ballet, and although it would be a stretch to say I knew exactly what happened, I feel as though I have a pretty good idea just from paying attention to the stage, the props, the body language, and turns of event made obvious even without language. I'd be interested to see the production in English.
The Russian crowd enjoyed the performance, and I would recommend the Pushkin Theatre even for those who don't speak Russian. It is tiring to spend two hours watching stage theatre in a different language, but also rewarding if you can sit still for that long (no intermission).
A couple nights ago I went to the Kremlin Palace to see the Bolshoi Theatre's production of Sleeping Beauty. It was beautiful, sure, but long, and honestly I had trouble following the story. I kept getting distracted by all the prancing.
I get the impression the Kremlin is pretty much the most important building in Moscow, and I figured if there is one place you are not allowed to smoke indoors it would be the Kremlin Palace during the ballet. But nope, feel free to smoke away, folks. Fortunately it was only in the foyer, but what kind of culture doesn't allow children to use the restroom without first having to walk through dozens if not more than a hundred smokers, and thick clouds of uncirculated smoke?
Visiting the ballet in Moscow is cheap by comparison: 300 rubles gets you in the building, and 500 rubles got me a fantastic seat on the ground floor only 50 rows back from the stage. I'm glad I went, but I really don't think ballet is my thing. I figure if I can pass on one of the world's most renowned ballet companies, I can probably go the rest of my life without seeing another ballet. To me there just doesn't seem to be that much diversity in the dance: prance, prance, prance, expressive face, more prancing, ballerina feigns feinting, more prancing, and so on.
The original Tretyakov Gallery is two floors: the ground floor features epic landscapes and portraits from mostly the 18th and 19th centuries, and the basement floor had religious icons from mostly the 11th century. I spent about four hours on the ground floor, and not even 40 minutes in the basement: If you've seen one Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you've pretty much seen them all.
A few of my early favorites at the museum (after the first 90 minutes, I lost track) were, Sylvester Shchedrin, "Moonlight in Naples," and pretty much everything by Vasily Perov.
In the museum there were also a few paintings of organ grinders with their monkeys, which reminded me of one of my Dad's favorite phrases, and sage advice: Talk to the organ grinder, not the monkey.
Before visiting Russia I had heard of only two Russian artists, Kandinsky and Chagall, and until a few days ago I thought Chagall was French (actually born in what is now Belarus).
The Tretyakov is housed in two buildings: the State Tretyakov houses works from the 11th to 20th centuries, and the nearby contemporary gallery on Krymsky houses modern works.
During my visit the contemporary Tretyakov gallery featured an exhibit of mood landscape works by Isaac Levitan. I was not familiar with this guy, but my god was he prolific. He lived for only 40 years (1860-1900) but his work filled nearly an entire floor of a massive gallery. Apparently he finished more than 1,000 works during his lifetime, primarily paintings but also drawings and sketches, etc. His paintings were some of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen. Monet is dull by comparison. Levitan is my new favorite painter.
Another favorite from this museum was the Sots Art (short for Socialist Art, also referred to as Soviet Pop Art). Think of Warhol, but instead of preying upon mass media and advertising, the artists of this movement mimicked and subsequently mocked the aesthetic of official Soviet doctrine. It must have taken extreme courage in the early 1970s to mock Soviet figureheads, certainly more courage than painting soup cans and pinup girls.
15 March 2011
The former House of Photography features multimedia exhibits in the lobby, which I suppose is why they changed the name of the museum to the Multimedia Art Museum.
There were some animated film dioramas that were so very cool. I don't even know how to describe them other than to say, Imagine the lame dioramas at any natural history museum, then add really cool animated motion-picture displays and sound, and maybe a Soviet theme or two.
During my visit the museum featured an extensive gallery of Fellini: photographs of Fellini, film clips of Fellini's work, personal effects, fan letters, and I think some paintings and sketches done by the director. There may have also been some photographs taken by Fellini. I don't remember exactly.
I don't have much interest in Hollywood or cinema culture, and I really don't know anything about Fellini. I'm not even sure if I have ever seen one of his films (probably not) so I was not really blown away by the exhibit, but I was very impressed with the museum itself.
The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography, like Pobeda Gallery, is also located on the Moscow River near the eyesore Peter the Great statue. When I visited there were exhibits featuring photography from Danil Golovkin and Anton Lyalin.
Danil Golovkin takes large-format photographs of beauty and glamour, all manufactured shots, nothing spontaneous. They were pretty to look at, on the surface, but overall felt pretty vapid. Pretty people doing pretty things put together with a big budget.
Anton Lyalin produced a series of wildlife photographs from Africa. They were also large format, or at least medium format (probably a mixture of both). They were really pretty incredible, but you can only look at so many closeups of wild animals before you feel like you've landed in the pages of another National Geographic magazine. He's actually so talented that I think his exhibit suffers from his own talent. He makes it look too good, too easy.
The Lumiere Center is located in a former chocolate factory, and in addition to the gallery there is also a small library of photography books, and of course a cafe. I sat in the library for a while and read a couple books about Henri Cartier-Bresson.
I found this place by accident while looking for the Pobeda Gallery, which took me about four hours, on two different attempts over the course of three or four days, to find. If you're looking for the Pobeda Gallery in Moscow, your best bet is to visit the Lumiere Center first, and just ask them. They're pretty much neigbhors, all things considered.
Pobeda Gallery is a small contemporary photography gallery next to the Moscow River, near the embarrassingly large Peter the Great Statue, which is more than twice the height of the Statue of Liberty and at least four times as ugly. It is as big of an eyesore as you can imagine. It was unveiled only in 1997, and it would not be hard to imagine the statue being a subtle insult against Peter.
But back to Pobeda. The gallery currently features the first-ever exhibition of Georgian photography in Moscow. There were maybe 100 photos from six artists, the most impressive of whom, in my opinion, was Guram Tsibakhashvili (Гурам Цибахашвили).
The photos from at least one or maybe two of the artists felt as though they were there, perhaps, because there aren't just enough quality Georgian photographers to fill a gallery, but the dozen or so works from Tsibakhashvili could have carried the exhibition by themselves. The vintage prints were combined with mixed-media political statements regarding the Caucasus.
The gallery itself was great: tough to find, but easy to consume (only two rooms) and free.
I visited this cathedral, the tallest Orthodox church in the world, last week, and was impressed with the vibrancy of the ceiling paintings. I couldn't imagine how they remained so bright after so many years. I hadn't planned on going, but I happened to be walking by on my way to a photography gallery. The admission was free, but in the spirit of Christ you must first walk through the gift shop.
Then today I learned the church was demolished after the Russian Revolution of 1917, more specifically after the death of Lenin, and that it was eventually turned into the world's largest outdoor swimming pool. The church as it stands today is less than 20 years old, and as far as I know everything is a replica, which explains why all the paintings look so new. Because, well, they are. Even so, it's pretty amazing, for a church.
10 March 2011
Russia is not near any major oceans, so the weather here does not fluctuate wildly like it can in the United States. It gradually gets colder in the fall until it is subzero for months on end. Now it is March and it is gradually getting warmer until eventually there will be green grass, and unfrozen, albeit cold waters. Right now is the most dangerous time in Moscow, I think, because the temperatures dip below freezing at night and rise above zero during the day: melt, freeze, melt, freeze, slip and fall and crack your skull.
You have to be extremely careful walking on the pavement now that Jack Frost is getting ready to hibernate. But the dangers have their benefits. It is springtime, one degree Celsius, 35 degrees Fahrenheit! After the past month, I am not exaggerating when I say I'd be comfortable wearing a t-shirt outside, maybe not for hours but for an hour or maybe two, sure.
Many of the sidewalks are blocked so that city workers can clear the rooftops of deadly icicles and falling snow. Yesterday a chunk of snow and ice the size of maybe a baseball fell from a six-story building and landed about six feet from me. I was well away from the side of the building, but a gust of wind blew it across the sidewalk. When I walked home last night I made sure to walk in the middle of the street, moving aside only for the occasional car.
Before I came to Russia, travel guides and word of mouth led me to believe that the former Soviet Republic is the wild, wild west of thugs and thieves, a dangerous place not to be taken lightly. Frankly, I feel less safe in America than I do in Russia, where guns are illegal and the penalties for theft are severe.
Severe is probably an understatement: The hostel where I am currently staying said once a Russian guest got drunk and stole a faucet from the sink, the kind of fratboy prank that would be ignored a thousand times over in America, but this particular Russian is now serving two years in prison; the guy who stole a camera and laptop, four years in prison. If you got your laptop stolen in America, you'd be lucky if the police would take the time to respond to the call. More likely you'd file a report on your own and it'd go straight into the trash.
Yes, there is organized crime, but Russian businesses have far more money than tourists, and the only thing they might want from you is your passport. Like in any country, don't get drunk at a club and wander home alone at three in the morning. That's where you are bound to get in trouble: thugs posting up at the club to follow the drunkest foreigner(s) home, especially if the language you speak is a passport of interest.
I have not felt unsafe in Moscow, even for a second, and the dangers in the Russian Far East and Siberia were mostly in my head: afraid of what I didn't see, the empty streets, cold and dark and icy passages. Probably the most dangerous thing in Siberia and the Russian Far East were the feral dogs, and even those are more bark than bite. Rabies is uncommon here, but I strongly suggest getting vacinnated against rabies if you plan on spending any time in rural Russia, if only for your peace of mind, because even if the dogs are all bark and no bite, it is a pretty nasty bark and you are a long way from major hospitals.
This has just been my experience, traveling alone from one side of the country to the other. I am sure people get mugged by the dozens or maybe even hundreds in Moscow every day; after all, it is one of the biggest cities in the world, but if you are considering visiting Russia but are hesitant because you are afraid, I suggest you purge yourself of those fears and make it happen. Just plan ahead, because getting a Russian visa can be a slow and relatively expensive process.
09 March 2011
This evening I visited the State Museum of Gulag, in Moscow. There were personal items and photographs from exiled and tortured prisoners, personal and legal documents, artifacts unearthed years after the Gulag shut its doors in 1960, replica prisoner barracks, and a map that shows the locations for the hundreds or maybe thousands of primary and secondary prisoner camps spanning the entire country, from Moscow to Vladivostok and beyond. It was prisoners who built the same railway I took from Vladivostok to Moscow, and you can see photographs of these prisoners hanging out of the railways cars, making the same journey I did but in the opposite direction and with a very different outcome. When they reached Vladivostok they often boarded boats and headed farther north, never to be seen again, to the places in Russia where even polar bears would not want to go.
Until tonight I always thought gulag was a generic term for the camps themselves, and collaquially this is often how the word is used today, not only in reference to Russia but in other countries as well, but it was actually an acronym for the name of the state agency that oversaw the camps and prisoners (ГУЛаг: Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies ).
At the museum there were also paintings done by surviving inmates, and not paintings that are noteworthy because they were done by former prisoners, but paintings that would be haunting in their own right. Other contemporary Russian artists contributed paintings, mixed-media pieces, sketches, drawings and sculptures.
The smaller camps held between 2,000 and 5,000 prisoners each, so it is hard to comprehend just how many people died. I was told that as many as 18 million prisoners, many if not most of them innocent, were imprisoned by Gulag, and more than one million of these died. When I saw a death toll listed by year, I asked if that was how many people died in all of the camps, but was told, No, that is the death toll for only one camp, and it was a secondary camp.
Unfortunately most of the exhibit was not translated into English; however, I went with a Belarusian photographer name Саша (Sasha) who translated what he heard into English. Even without a translater it would be worth seeing, provided you do a little homework beforehand.
Tonight Sasha and I are going to a hookah bar to smoke shisha. He lives in the capital city of Belarus (Minsk) and I may visit his city with him before I head to St. Petersburg, because you do not need a seperate visa to visit Belarus, which I am told is a throwback to the Soviet era. One person in Siberia (or maybe it was the Russian Far East, I forget) told me that Belarus is where people who miss the Soviet Union go on holiday, to reminisce and recall the good ol' days. Sasha tells me the food is wonderful, and so far his information has proved reliable.
Russia today has major problems in the Caucasus region with the Chechen Republic, or Chechnya, where there is an ongoing violent battle for independence from Russia, which wants to keep Chechnya within its fold so as to prevent Muslim extremists gaining a foothold into the country. Chechnyan separatists have a reputation for extreme violence: recently with the suicide bombers at Moscow's primary airport, and in 2004 they took more than 150 schoolchildren hostage before slaughtering them all.
You can bet the Chechnyans will make some noise before the 2014 Olympics, which will take place in the Russian resort city of Sochi, just north of the Georgian border and nearby Chechnya. I heard via word of mouth from another traveler a couple weeks ago that Chechnyan extremists recently stopped a car of skiers on their way to the mountain, shooting up the car with a machine gun and blowing up one of the ski lifts. I don't know if it is true, but there is no reason to believe otherwise, because that level of violence could be considered tame by Chechynan standards.
Do not be surprised if the safety of the Olympic Games is made possible because of ethnic cleansing. The Russian government does not fuck around when it comes to Chechnyans, and there is much discrimination and violence toward those from Chechnya and even those who look as though they may come from the Caucasus region. In recent years there have been many reports of skinhead attacks in Moscow and especially St. Petersburg, a trend that to my knowledge has never been acknowledged by the Russian government, and maybe even outright denied. America is not the only country with a history of don't ask, don't tell.
Anyway, back to Georgian photography. I tried for three hours to find this gallery, only to later learn I'd been given an incorrect map (so I never did find the gallery, but I will return tomorrow with a correct map). But in the meantime I read many street signs written in Cyrillic, and it dawned on me that I am now pretty confident in my grasp of the the Cyrillic alphabet (although my pronounciation needs work, definitely). But I am confident enough now that I corrected more than one Russian who told me how to spell my name using Cyrillic characters. It was suggested I spell it differently; however, when I spelled it the way I thought it should be spelled, and asked a few native speakers to pronounce all of the candidates, it was clear to me that I was correct. In their defense, Dewey is a strange name for them and not particularly easy to pronounce.
The candidates: Дюи, Дьюи, Дыюи
Дюи is correct. The symbols "ь" and "ы" from the other two candidates are not actually letters but more like accents, insofar as they inform the reader how to correctly pronounce the previous character (in this case, Д). But using either of these characters in the spelling of Dewey make it sound as though my name is being pronounced with a slur or impediment of some kind.
Дюи = Dewey.
2014 in Sochi = big problems.
Yesterday I tried to visit the Bogoroditse-Smolensky Monastery, also known as the Novodevichy Convent. Apparently it is Moscow's most famous convent, but I knew nothing about it, and frankly didn't even know it was a convent until today. I was tagging along with a couple of French guys I met here in Moscow, but we were unable to enter the monastery because it is closed on Tuesdays (according the police officer smoking a cigarette next to the no-smoking sign).
But we did visit the adjacent cemetery, Moscow's most famous cemetery besides the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, which for many years now has been closed to future burials. It was reserved mostly, or perhaps exclusively, for Russian heads of state, etc.
The Novodevichy Cemetery includes some heads of state (e.g. Boris Yeltsin, first president of Russia; Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) but mostly it is the permanent home to Russia's secular and military, not political, elite: famous astronauts, aviators, dancers, writers, musicians, and also military generals.
The cemetery is both tacky and endearing, but mostly endearing, I think. The monuments and gravestones are all uniquely designed to express individuality, and to call attention to whatever it was that made the person famous. The gravestones of aviators might be in the shape of a fighter jet, whereas the gravestone of a writer might feature him sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette.
I noticed that one of the cemetery's residents died on March 4 of this year, only four days earlier. Later I learned he was buried on March 7, only one day before our visit. His gravestone was covered in fresh flowers, and the framed photograph of him (many if not most of the graves featured framed photographs) had yet to be destroyed by Russia's unforgiving winter. It turns out the man was Mikhail Simonov, a famous aviation engineer who designed fighter jets and developed the Sukhoi Su-27, Russia's military response to America's F-15 Eagle.
While traveling home last week from Olkhon Island's main village of Khuzir, I stopped briefly at a small mainland village called MPC. In Russian when you are entering or exiting a village, town or city, there are no 'Welcome to Whatever!' or 'You Are Now Leaving Whatever!' signs; there is simply a sign with the name of the town when you enter, and when you leave it is the name of the town with a red line drawn through it, like a no-smoking sign but without the outer circle.
When I looked for MPC on the map, and researched it on the Internet, I found nothing. Instead I found a village called Sakhyurta, so I asked a Russian friend from Irkutsk if he knew anything about the town. He said, "The village of Sakhyurta, which is its historical Buryat name, has a Soviet name, MPC, which abbreviates as The Small Sea Shipfixing Yard. This enterprise stopped functioning in the middle of 90s, but this strange name is still in use."
Small Sea refers to the massive size of Lake Baikal, and the dual names of the village are an example of something seen all over Russia: the mix of Soviet and modern Russian cultures.
08 March 2011
"We have so much! Use it, USE IT, yes!"
More than once, and not only in Moscow, I have been scolded for turning off the lights when I exit the room, or for not keeping the water running while washing dishes. Typically the lights at hostels are kept on all night, and when it is negative 25 degrees Celsius it is not uncommon for the buildings to be so heated that you need to open the windows. It is nearly impossible to be cold in Russia. Living in San Francisco is a much colder experience, and it's not a close race.
Water and electricity are plentiful here, and free to use, because most Russians do not pay for their own utilities. If they do, I was told last night by an American woman working in the financial sector who has lived in Moscow for 15 years and hasn't been back to America in more than 10 years, "that started, like, yesterday, so they don't really understand these things cost money."
Water is unlimited but faucet handles are not free, comrade! Please stop putting so much unnecessary wear and tear on my faucet! Please stop putting so much wear and tear on my light switch! This is Russia! We do not need your oil, nor your gas, nor your timber, nor your anything!
Today is a national holiday in Russia: Women's Day. Actually, now that I look into it as I am writing this, it appears as though this holiday is celebrated in pretty much every country except the United States (there are ~75 countries where International Women's Day is observed).
It is in a small way similar to Valentine's Day, except that it is focuses only on women, of course [Russian men have a de facto Men's Day (Defender of the Fatherland Day, February 23; sometimes also called Defender of the Motherland Day)] and I would also argue that Valentine's Day has far more to do with gifts than it does with respect. Women's Day seems to have stayed more true to the course. Yes, there are small gifts and flowers, and I am sure by some it is Americanized and the gifts get larger, but it seems to be mostly a day where nobody works so they can spend time and energy on the women they love, not just money.
In honor of Women's Day, I will take a moment to thank the most important women in my life:
Kelly: Hey hey hey! Thank you for being so enthusiastically in love with me. You are wonderful and irreplaceable. My love for you grows more every day, to the point where soon it will be fatter than Fat Albert, but without you I would feel more like Mushmouth, simple and sad and mumbly.
Mom: Enough said. You are the best. Thank you for decades of unconditional love and support.
Nara: Thank you for being with Tom. You will be rewarded handsomely in the next life, I'm sure. Also thank you for all your love and support of Dragon. I would not be able to do what I am doing without you, and not a day goes by where I don't realize that. It is great to have you in our family.
07 March 2011
Today was my first full day in Moscow, and fortunately it is not all as ugly as the area around the train station. There is a lot of beauty near Red Square and the Kremlin, especially the onion domes of the famous and adjacent Saint Basil's Cathedral.
I also visited Mosfilm, which I've heard is the oldest and largest film studio in Europe. I went only to visit the pro photography lab, where I dropped off somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 rolls of film to get developed. Most of the film is black and white, 35mm; however, there are a few color rolls, and also some medium format (both black and white, and color).
The hostel where I am currently staying does not have any vacancy starting in three days, but I need to be in Moscow for at least another week, probably more like 10 days, before my negatives are finished. Fortunately I racked up an ungodly amount of hotel reward points thanks to years of American Express loyalty, so instead of finding another hostel and sleeping in another bunk bed on a twin mattress in a room full of mostly European strangers, starting in a few days I'll spend five nights for free at what I imagine is a five-star hotel on the front steps of the Kremlin. It is called Hotel National, and it looks amazing. If it is not a five-star affair, it is at least nice enough where the entire staff has to be really nice to you at all times, even though they are Russian.
Traveling across Russia for one month, I ate some great food and some terrible food and plenty of average food in between. But good, bad or better, I never really had much control over what I was going to eat. Either it was prepared for me without inquiry, or I was ordering blindly from the menu, or a local who speaks English would reassure me by saying something vague like, Don't worry, this place has both kinds of food: meat and fish.
Last night, after three or four days on the train eating instant noodles and mashed potatoes, with some dried fruit and nuts for good measure, I went to McDonald's. It was the first time I was actually able to order off the menu and know exactly what I was getting. I didn't exactly order off the menu, because I still couldn't really read the menu, but McDonald's is pretty much McDonald's, and either way they've got a picture menu. I ate a double cheeseburger, nine-piece chicken nuggets, with large fries and a Coke. The Russian Far East and Siberia, as far as I could tell, does not have McDonald's, and even though Mickey D's is mostly junk, every once in a while it hits the spot, and afterward last night I thought to myself, Охуенно!
That is the weather report, and actually as quickly as I could write "snowing today in Moscow," it stopped snowing. It took me a month to reach Moscow from the easternmost port city of Vladivostok, and the temperature has been below zero day and night for that entire time, with snow and ice on the ground always, but the truth is I have only ever seen it snowing maybe five or six times. Most of the snow falls in Russia in December and January, I've heard, and by February it is too cold to snow. I didn't even know that was possible, too cold to snow.
I have made jokes about the dangers of winter driving in Russia (i.e. using safety icons instead of seatbelts) but two days ago my friend Dmitry in Vladivostok was in a car crash, and one of the passengers is now in a coma, so even if it is not icy where you live, please be careful on the roads, and wear your seatbelt even if the dashboard is already full of religious icons.
06 March 2011
My first impression of Moscow is that it is dirty, ugly and underwhelming. Granted, that was before I saw the local drunk pissing in the Metro tunnel (and what he didn't see was the Russian cop approaching slowly with a smile, casually swinging his stungun like a baton).
The train ride from Irkutsk wasn't so bad except for the part where I vomited on myself. I had what my girlfriend calls temperature confusion (hot and cold night chills) so I stepped in the foyer outside the bathroom for some fresh air, only it was full of stale cigarette smoke, and immediately thereafter, my vomit. Unfortunately it's tough to have perfect aim on a shaky Russian train. But then I settled in for the remaining 60-something hours and life was grand. I shared third-class living space with an ex-con (at least that's what I gathered from the prison tattoos) named Albert, who was sincerely one of the friendliest Russians I've met. We spoke maybe four words in three days, but somehow we bonded, and he woke me up at about five in the morning today to shake my hand and nod goodbye.
03 March 2011
Tonight I leave for Moscow. Eighty-two hours on the train, I think. I wanted to treat myself to second-class travel but unfortunately the cabins were all booked. The only berths left were third-class, and not only that, but third-class up top. It will be like sleeping in a tiny cave with not even enough room to sit upright. In fact, it's not even close. I'd say you could get your upper torso at maybe a forty-five degree angle before you'd bump your head.
There are three bunks up top: two where you sleep with your head perpendicular to the window, and one where you are parallel to the train tracks. There were so few berths left on the whole train, I'm afraid I'll be sleeping parallel to the tracks. With more than 50 people packed into one train car, sleeping for days on end, it gets hot, but outside of course it is cold, so when you sleep parallel to the tracks you've got half your body constantly cold and the other half constantly too warm. I imagine you learn to rotate in your sleep like a pig at a roast.
In other weather news, I thought the temperatures might have reached positive today, but I checked and it's still five below zero, but for me it honestly felt a bit like springtime when I was outside.
I may not be comfortable for 80-plus hours but at least I'll have good snacks. I made sure to load up: coffee, bread, noodles, breakfast cakes, green tea, candy, five liters of water, dried fruits and nuts, and even some instant mashed potatoes, which I've heard are more than edible when judged by train-food standards.
I also bought some new flip-flops for the train. My old flip-flops broke. I have learned not to take Chinese markets for granted, and I wonder if every city in every country has its own Chinese market. I've so far replaced my flip-flops and gloves, both at different Chinese markets in different Russian cities, and the prices always remind me that the Chinese maybe need to pay higher wages (although to be fair, my new flip-flops are stamped, MADE IN RUSSIA.
I stepped on a nail while trying on the flip-flops. It wasn't exactly rusty but it wasn't exactly clean. Either way it made me grateful to have gotten my tetanus shot, and even so I made sure to clean it with warm soapy water and dab some disinfectant cream on it. There was a Russian who heard me grunt and make a face when I removed the nail and threw it on the ground, and with hand signals he effectively communicated that the Chinese man had dick for brains. The Chinese vendor chased him away with a wooden stick, and when I saw the Russian later, while exiting the market, we both laughed and bumped fists. It was to date my friendliest encounter with a Russian stranger.
(I forgot to mention that it was the Chinese man who handed me the flip-flops with a nail already sticking through the bottom. It's not as though I stepped on a nail already on the street; the guy puts nails through the bottoms of all his flip-flops so he can hang them more easily.)
The most difficult part, traveling as an American across Russia, has not been the occasional hostile grunt when Jackfuckall Nobody learns of my citizenship. It has been the friendlier ones, the dozens of travelers from nearly a dozen different countries who have welcomed me into their conversations (some of them solo travelers as well) but have no curiosity whatsoever about America or life as an American. Those who have been to America, I think, are maybe a bit more likely to ask a few curious questions, but for the most part, everybody watches our movie stars and listens to our terrible pop music of today and more likely yesterday. They have their opinions, political and otherwise, and in their eyes they already know America. I could be from San Francisco or San Antonio, and it is all the same. It has of course not been that way with everybody, and in fact Russians have been more willing to be curious, far more so than the German or the Dutch or the Australians or the British or the French or the Swiss, et al.
02 March 2011
I didn't know what to expect upon arriving on Olkhon Island, but I knew that only five years ago they did not have electricity, and that indoor plumbing is still a thing of the future.
It took about five hours to reach the island, and the final leg of the journey was the most exciting. We switched from a regular minibus to a Russian-made off-road minivan, and drove the rest of the way across frozen ice.
Olkhon Island is nearly deserted during the winter: roughly four times the size of San Francisco with only 1,500 or so residents, and almost no tourists.
It was the best food I've had in Russia, by far: fresh eggs from the chickens in the backyard; fresh chicken from the chickens in the backyard; fresh beef from the cows wandering the streets; Siberian omul and other local fish from the lake, and all of it cooked with love at Olga's house, where I stayed for the week.
Day one: Walking a few hundred feet to the outhouse in the middle of the night with subzero temperatures wasn't so bad considering I saw more stars than I'd ever seen in my life. The rural Siberian sky in total darkness is a thing to be seen. When I returned there in the morning was when I first spotted the chicken coop that would serve as our grocery store for the next week or so.
Also on my first day I spotted one of the many illegal dumps on the island. There is no system in place for waste disposal, so these illegal dumps present a huge ecological challenge. Strangely, in one of them, I spotted what clearly was food aid from the United States. It must have come from Mongolia or China or elsewhere, because I can't imagine a time where the USA would send food aid to Russia, or a time where Russia would accept it. It was an empty five-liter can of cooking oil, branded USA in huge blue letters.
I ended the evening with my first Russian banya. There is no running water on Olkhon Island, and therefore no showers. Instead you light a wood fire, let it burn for a few hours to heat up the water, and sit in a nice hot sauna until you sweat, sweat, SWEAT. Then you lather up and douse yourself in icy water.
Day two: Along with two Australians, one Dutch girl and her English boyfriend, we rented a driver with one of those awesome Russian-made minivans and we traveled a few hours north, driving on the lake the whole time, all the way to the northernmost cape of the island, which I think may have been called Khoboy cape, although I'm not sure. The van had no seatbelts, which was fine because the driver made it a point to install safety icons, front and center above the windshield.
While at the northernmost point of the island, we spotted some Russian ice divers: not extreme tourism but instead just some crazy Russians killing time on a Saturday. I later learned that, underwater, there at that spot, there is a cave where a family of freshwater Baikal seals lives. We could see the ice divers beneath our feet: at spots the ice is easy to see through, and at other spots not so much, but all around you could see the oxygen bubbles, and at one point one of the divers broke his head up through the ice at the aboveground rift that I am about to describe.
Aboveground there was a rift in the ice, spots where it was so thin you could crack through to frozen water with no more effort than a pinky finger. Most likely this was caused by a bad storm the night before, or seismic activity. Within days it will freeze again to more than a meter, unless perhaps it was a rift caused by hot underwater gases, in which case it might simply be a known danger zone. Either way, my driver grabbed my arm, feigned like he was going to push me in, and laughed. Finally I have found something less funny than Jack Black.
It was crazy to see a couple of huge SUVs comfortably parked on the ice, and only maybe 50 feet away ice so thin that not even a small bird could walk on it safely. Fortunately our guide, a tried and true old Russian man, seemed to know what he was doing. One time during our return journey, he stopped at what he thought might be a weak point in the ice (or so we guessed, considering we spoke no Russian and he spoke no English) and tested it with a swift kick of the boot. These boots must be new Russian technology: footwear that can mimic thousands and thousands of pounds of pressure. But we drove on, and safely.
Day three: The harbor on the island is frozen solid, boats and all; it was similar to Vladivostok but with many more boats, and much more falling-apart beauty. Some of the boats are working boats and will be used in the spring and summer, some have been abandoned, but all of them look as though you'd maybe want to think twice before taking them on a three-hour tour.
Close to shore but out past all the boats was what we at first took to be an icy grave, or memorial or some sort: It was a cross made of ice blocks, with a nearby hole carved into the ice, and water shallow enough to see the coins at the bottom. It turns out it is a Siberian tradition, something to do with the Russian Orthodox calendar, and something to do with celebrating the conception of Christ or his birth or that time he told all of his followers to strip naked and jump in the frozen Siberian lake.
Tradition says that if you jump into the lake on that one specific day, you won't get sick. The man who runs the hostel here in Irkutsk said he did it once, and that by the time he took the towel to his upper body, the water on his legs and lower body had already frozen; he had to crack the ice of his body. Good times. We should have known it was a holy spot when we spotted all of the cigarette butts and empty bottles of vodka and beer.
This was also the day I first spotted the cows wandering aimlessly around town. It turns out there are plenty of them. I saw one loitering in front of a restaurant, another in front of the pharmacy, and dozens more in front of houses on nearly every street. They wandered in and out of gates (smart, for cows) and I saw one get chased by a pack of wild dogs. I swear the cow leaped up off the ground, if only for an instant.
Day four: I met a lonely street puppy who I later named Bear, because I am original and he was brown. I sat with him for maybe an hour, after I realized he wasn't going to take no for an answer. He followed me, albeit slowly, everywhere I went, and I didn't have it in me to leave him behind. He disappeared, I think under a fence, and it made me feel sad and lazy, so I went back to Olga's house for lunch. That evening Bear found me again and we hiked together for nearly three hours. He lumbered behind slowly, and when I stopped to take photos he started whimpering because being still made him too cold, I think. When we encountered packs of feral dogs, I picked him up and carried him. Eventually two young girls spotted him and carried him away. I saw one of the girls with Bear the next day, and I got the impression Bear belonged to her, which was great news for me because then I could stop questioning myself as to how I could possibly take the little guy with me.
Day five: Today included a few repeats, such as the frozen harbor and one of the many town dumps, which I find fascinating; it also made me more aware to not create so much waste when I am on the island, because there is nowhere really for it to go. There was a light snow, which is the third or maybe fourth time I've seen a snowfall in Russia, although the snow exists everywhere (mostly falls in December and January, I'm told).
Day six: I took the bus back to Irkutsk because I started to feel lonely and anxious: lonely because I wanted to email my girlfriend, and anxious because I want to get to Moscow. Unfortunately there were no seatbelts in our bus back to Irkutsk, which would have been fine had the driver made the effort to install some Russian safety icons, but unfortunately there were none of those either. Miraculously I managed to survive, and tomorrow night I'll travel 82 hours straight, on the train, upper bunk, third class, all the way from Irkutsk to Moscow.