Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Days 77-80: Moscow, Russia

Wow, what a change from other Russian cities.

This feels more like a microcosm of Russia than anything else... Awash in petrodollars, Moscow's opulence must be seen to be believed. Much cleaner than any other city I have visited in Russia yet -- and also much, much bigger -- Moscow is hard to explain. But I'll try.

Fashionable and trendy. A city that doesn't sleep. A city with too many cars. Expensive for sure, but cheap eats can definitely be found. A breakfast at a supermarket can be purchased for less than $2, but anything that requires service is automatically four times more expensive, aside from a simple snack at a kiosk. A small frappucino in a Starbucks, though, sets one back by a whopping $6, as does breakfast at a McDonald's. People are nicer than I expected, and that is saying a lot.

Moscow's grandeur is hard to explain. For Russia, this is its showcase capital, and most of Russia's money is circulated through here. What this means is much better customer service and a cosmopolitan feel for a country that discovered a perverse form of capitalism only some two decades ago. This translates to many surprises for the tourist, too, and most of them are pleasant surprises.

In my next post, I'll explain how my first night in Moscow was the most memorable on yet, and all of this happened at a hostel, as surprising at this may sound.

Days 74-76: Trans-Siberian Railway, Part 2 -- Irkutsk to Moscow

This train ride was a lot quicker than the Kharkov train. For one, it was an express train, and a much newer one, too. It was called "Baikal -- Irkutsk-Moscow." The route was a popular one, so the prices were high, but I managed to secure a ticket for only $110 in an open sleeper car (platskart) for a departure on November 5.

What surprised me most was how this car, a platskart at that, was better in all aspects than my more expensive 4-person private berth (kupe) on the previous train. And the people were different, too: for one, there were few noticeable alcoholics. The train conductors were much more polite, too, and didn't sell any bootlegged vodka from Ukraine to the alcoholics at a huge mark-up. :)

Cities we passed through on this train included Ekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Nizhniy Novgorod, Vladimir, and others, although I forgot the exact order. What was surprising is that some cities, such as Nizhniy Novgorod (Gor'kiy) and Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), the station names were the ones listed in parenthesis above, even though the cities have been renamed since the Soviet Union collapsed.

The highlight of this trip was, believe it or not, meeting and talking to 5 North Koreans. I saw them loading several boxes with the imprints "D.P.R. Korea" on them when the train got going, which surprised me. Then I noticed that two of the five men had jackets with pins of KIm il-Sung on them. I ended up striking a conversation with them, but only one of them spoke very good Russian. The others barely spoke Russian at all, so they must have been in Russia for only a short while. The fluent Russian speaker said that he has been going to Russia since the 1980s to work, and explained that all of these were workers who were here legally. They are allowed to return to North Korea and all have families there, he said. He also said, upon my inquiry, that Kim Jong-il is alive and well and didn't know where I heard the rumor that he had suffered a stroke. He also explained that all of them were from Pyongyang.

I don't know what to think. When another woman asked him what North Korea was like, he said that it's a very poor country, and that is why the workers came here. This candor surprised me. But then he said that foreigners like to visit North Korea and don't want to leave it, because it's so safe (true) and clean (also true). But it's not like that for the right reasons, so his words were definitely well-picked and I could tell that he was educated (he was even reading a Russian newspaper for a while). He was also surprised that I didn't visit North Korea, since I was so curious about it, but then I explained that Americans can't go there for many reasons. He was surprised, but not too much. When someone asked him about reunification with South Korea, he replied that this question has always existed and does so to this day--and added that South Korea is much richer than the North. Since normally a North Korean would not either know or admit this information, his candor surprised me again. Then I noticed he got off before the other North Koreans did, so he was either their escort, translator, minder, or something like that. Oh, and he warned me that if America ever wanted to attack North Korea, it would be a big mistake and that the Koreans would respond with all their might.

I showed my North Korean money, stamps, and cigarettes that I managed to purchase in Dandong, and the remaining four migrant workers were all very surprised. And once the North Korean described above got off the train, they suddenly became lukewarmly interested in looking at my video and photos of life in South Korea, which they didn't want to look at before. They still insisted that North Korea is the true Korea and truly believed in Kim Jong-il's wellbeing, etc. -- and one of the soldiers, in perfect Russian, uttered "Death to the U.S. Army." Surprising, perhaps, but definitely a strong comment.

One of them showed me a photo of his wife and child back in North Korea, so it's too bad that I didn't have a photo of my family or house to show them. I just didn't expect to meet North Koreans anywhere on this trip, but it just so happened that I met them on the Trans-Siberian. ...

Days 69-73: Irkutsk, Russia -- and Lake Baikal (Listvyanka)

Irkutsk was a pleasant city to be in, even for an extended time. I planned on staying in the city for only a few days and then heading off to Mongolia, which wasn't too far, but the price I was quoted at the train station was some three times ($120-140) more expensive than what I planned on paying ($40), so I reconsidered. Luckily, the Russian visa, whether single- or double-entry, was the same price, so I lost only $10 for the difference of a single- or double-entry invitation (the double-entry invitation cost $10 more).

This meant that I would be in Irkutsk for a whopping 5 days. The city, which is considered the capital of Siberia, is home to some 550,000 people. I expected it to be cold when I arrived, but it was -3 Celcius (about 25 degrees) at night, and during the day it got to as high as +10 (50 degrees Farenheit). On the day before I left, though, it dropped quickly, due to a strong wind, and the next day it was from -10 to -20 degrees Celcius.

The city, home to many of the Decembrists of the past, was pleasant, but not particularly clean. It was nice to stroll around and had many wooden cottages. The people, for one reason or another, were much more friendlier and pleasant than in Vladivostok. Prices for Internet were much lower and for food, too (kefir cost as low as 15 roubles per half a liter vs. up to 32 in Vladivostok).

The culmination of Irkutsk, though, was not the city itself, but Lake Baikal, which was located in the Listvyanka village some 65-70 km away. A girl named Anya who I met on the Internet was kind enough to take her car and give me a ride there while suggesting great spots to see. Lake Baikal is not only the world's deepest fresh water lake, but it is also its biggest, containing some 20% of the world's fresh water--more than all 5 of the Great Lakes in the U.S. combined. It was quite a site, especially with the weather getting better and better the closer we approached.

I'll upload my photos of Baikal to this blog in Minsk, hopefully, where I will be for more than 2 weeks, starting from Monday (November 17). It will take too much time to format and then upload them here, but they are truly great. So be on the lookout for that.

P.S. My memory card from China was fixed for free in Vladivostok at a digital photo center. So this means that I will upload those pics, too. Apparently, there was some virus in the memory card that set it to "read only," so the guy who worked there unchecked the box and that's it. Much easier than I expected.

Days 66-68: Trans-Siberian Railway, Part 1 -- Vladivostok to Irkutsk

I was advised by my roommate on the Rus' ferry, Anton, against opting for the cheapest train half-way across Russia: the Ukrainian car of the Vladivostok-Kharkov train, or any car on that train for that matter. It was said to be dirty, cheap, with horrible customer service, etc. The full route, which includes 8 days of non-stop transit, is a long one, indeed. But I didn't listen.

For one, it was the cheapest train available and departed at a time I thought was convenient, so I bought the ticket. Only minutes later did I find out that the time on the ticket for both Vladivostok (departure) and Irkutsk (arrival) were both Moscow time, which means I had to turn the clock 7 and 5 hours ahead, respectively, for the local time for each of those two cities. This meant that I would be departing Vladivostok shortly after midnight and arriving in Irkutsk shortly after midnight local time three days later... some 77 hours total. Fun stuff.

The ride was quick, though. The train might not have been the fastest and made a lot of one- and two-minute stops in small cities, but the time went by fast. We stopped in several large cities, such as Khabarovsk, Chita, and Ulan-Ude. Part of the route later on (after I got off, thankfully) went through Kazakhstan, which I didn't have a visa to transit in any case.

The Russian countryside from the train seemed to be very poor. And there were not many villages, if any, seen for hours. Siberia and the Russian Far East are sparsely populated due to the extreme temperature swings: sweltering in the summer, freezing in the winter.

The highlight of the trip was hospitality, Russian-style. This translates into two alkies riding in my 4-person berth along with a soldier who was going home to visit his relatives. The soldier was my age and was drinking along with the alkies. Actually, I switched my berth to be in theirs, since mine had several people who I felt itsy about: gypsies, etc. I was afraid that my things would go missing, so I switched places.

The alkies sure made the trip more than entertaining. One of them missed the train because he was buying vodka. Only two hours later did he make the train, and I could not fathom as to how... Then he told me: "Taxi, we caught up with the train." And how much did this cost, I inquired. "Seven thousand roubles ($280)," he replied. No comment.

Every two hours they would wake up, drink half a glass of vodka and, occasionally, eat a small caviar sandwich, and then go back to sleep, only for this to repeat again and again. And every morning the alkies would have new scars on their faces, presumably from bumping into random objects at night on their way to the bathroom, which was some 10 meters away. Broken drinking glasses also were a common scene every morning, so you had to watch where you step.

Then one of them was fined 1,000 roubles for purportedly throwing up. He claimed he didn't do it, but the train conductor woman called a train officer to arrest him or take him off the train, so he ended up paying an extra 1,000 roubles ($38) so they would leave him alone. He swore he didn't vomit near the bathroom, but who knows.... ?? In any case, 7,000 + 1,000 + 8,000 (original price of the ticket) = 16,000. Geez, for that money he could have flown to Samara, where he was headed, and he would have made it there much cheaper and quicker, too.

Many Russian soldiers were on their was home and we taking this train, so I met them and took some pictures in their uniform. There were many genuinely good people and some bad ones, but for the most part, this trip was very memorable in a typical Russian fashion. :)