Saturday, January 31, 2009

Never Trust a Girl Who Drinks Champagne From A Straw

Hello Everybody,

Those are good words to live by in general but I will explain them towards the end of this narrative. I hope everyone is doing well in their respective countries (to date I think this includes the United States, England, Oman and Russia). So now I really can't specify time zones. At any rate I have to review what has happened in the last two days to Edward and I - intrepid travelers extraordinaire...etc etc.

Yesterday saw our departure from the strikingly beautiful Lake Baikal. After breakfast Naudia and Vladamir picked us up from Baikalskie Terema and drove us to the 155-acre Museum of Wooden Architecture, which contains models of wooden buildings constructed in Siberia over the past 400 years. We saw a Cossack fort, a turn of the century school house, a yert made of - can you guess? - wood. (Which to be fair is actually strange since yerts are usually made of hide.) There were several other different types of houses, settlements and even an original banya that we got to visit. The place was very interesting but it was also -12 degrees (-24 celcius) outside in the sun; inside the buildings it was even colder as they essentially act as refrigerators. I think it got so cold in the fort we visited that my soul actually went numb. But what's Siberia without some cold, right? I have to admit I actually have totally changed my definition of that little four letter word. Today was -16 celcius which is about 5 or 6 degrees and I decided that wasn't cold enough for anything more than a standard pair of long underwear, or cold enough for glove liners, or even cold enough to zip my jacket up all the way. So when I get home to Seattle I'll be walking around in shorts and a T-shirt. Well...probably not.

Our tour continued from the MWA to Irkutsk itself where we had a Russian "business lunch". Can you guess how that's said in Russian? Trick question - "business lunch". Ed and I gave our guide a hard time about how all of their words seem to come from English. Such as dancing, okay, business lunch, running, gym, fitness, pasta, salad, soup (ok, so those aren't technically from English) but you get the point. After this lunch we headed on the city tour which led us from monument to monument, church to church, statue to statue and museum to museum. Long day. The highlights were the Decembrist's museum which is set up in the exile-home of a Russian noble who, after spending 8 years in hard labour - moved to Irkutsk in an attempt to salvage his life. His loving wife joined him and they did their best to mimick their lifestyle which they had enjoyed in Moscow. The man in question was the direct inspiration for Leo Tolstoy's main character in War and Peace, Andrei Bolkonsky. The other great part of Irkutsk was climbing to the top of a belltower for the "chorus of the bells". For those of us use to life in a European inspired vein the ringing of bells sounds very similar to a long, drawn out ddddiiiinnnnngggg dddddooooonnnnngggg, this isn't the case in Russia. In Europe the bell itself is swung, thus allowing for one sound to be produced, in Russia however, the clapper is swung, allowing for a series of different sounds and cadances to be formed. The master bell-sounder who we wititnessed had been doing this same job twice a day (as a hobby) in this same church for 16 years. He is, in essence, a rock star. He did a ten minute serenade which began with a fairly mundane rhythm and ended with a stunning beat which sounded vaguely similar to the Rolling Stones. I have some cool film of it which I will try and post soon. (Still on the search for successful technology here).

There was a lot more to the day than just that but those were the most note-worthy things. We arrived at our hotel, the recently constructed Victory Hotel to discover quite possibly the smallest room either of us has ever stayed in, in our lives. As in, my bedroom is noticeably larger than this place. Quite possibly so too was my crib when I was 3 months old. There literally isn't room for the two of us, our two bags, our two coats and our two carry-ons. There are mere inches on either side of our respective twin beds to the walls. This, we found, very amusing at first. Then clausterphobia set in.

This is a good segway for a brief rant on Russia (sorry Russians). Since Moscow Ed and I have yet to encounter a bathroom in a hotel that is fully functional. Not a single shower head stays up, they all sink down until your knees are the only part of you receiving water, sinks often won't produce the advertised temperature and toilet seats have developed this nasty habit of not staying put. This bathroom summed everything up however by including each of the individual mistakes of previous hotels. Which in truth is really just funny. Oh and the little shelf attached to the mirror is perfectly placed so that when one is washing their face, the only thing that can happen is for that person to smack their forehead against it. So no people of Russia, I have not developed a deep-seeded pimple in the center of my forehad, I just tried to wash my face...that's all.

The one thing Russians do seem to do well is boiling hot water. In terms of cooking it means that tea, coffee and soup has to be scalding hot. If a restaurant's borsch does not scathe the tongue then the chef is subject to a summary execution. The samovars keep water about 100 degrees above the boiling point, and inevitably one will spill on the walk back to the cabin in the train. Yes, I have a burn on my right hand. Also on my left foot. To quote the great English comedian, Eddie Izzard, "in a shower, the difference between fantastically hot and fuckin' freezin' is a one milimeter turn of the handle." In Russia, as with the rest of the world, this is true. However, unlike the rest of the world, in Russia the difference between fantastically hot and third-degree burns followed by a necessary and life-saving skin graft is one nanometer. To give credit where credit is due, the first sentence of this paragraph came from Ed who made this announcement moments after a surprised scream in the shower as his water went from pleasant to really freaking hot.

Ok, back to our day.

So we decided to try out Irkutsk's # 1 recommended nightclub, Stratosphere. Which....sucked. However, in the process we did meet some people who recommended another place that we all headed to. There were a lot more people at this second club and it was here that Edward and I were able to finalize our opinion of Russian women and the culture surrounding them. Ok, here goes: the women in Russia are beautiful, and many are really striking. The men...not so much. And both genders are very, very aware of this discrepency and general inequality. As a result the Russian males will hurl themselves against the rocks of rejecection to appease these women. All a girl in a Russian club has to do is sit and look slightly bored and maybe...maybe...flash a smile or two and every drink she could ever want will be delivered to her on a silver platter. Ed and I had watched this in Omsk with some amusement. A guy would approach a woman and offer to buy her a drink. She would accept. Then she would send him off to retrieve said drink and talk with her friends or other guys in the meantime. Upon the first male's return she would talk with him for a minute or two to be polite before dismissing him. The men seemed resigned to this fate. To some extent.

The group we had run into at Stratosphere seemed to think Edward and I followed the general ground rules of Russian males...which as Americans...we don't. Sure we had to pay for the cab ride, ok, that's not a surprise. Yes we had to pay for the initial round, and this is where we should have noticed the warning signs. The ladies at our table ordered a bottle of champagne (champainsky) for 300 roubles. Which equates to...$9.50. Ed leaned into me and said, "How much do you want to bet this will be the worst champagne we've ever tasted?" The Russian bastardization of a French masterpiece arrived and to our mutual horror, the girls began to slurp it up with...straws. We simply had to ask them, "Are you seriously drinking champagne through a straw?" (only one of them spoke English). "Yes, of course!" Was her reply. Ed and I cracked up at that, and then passed on the straws for ourselves. The ringleader of the group was a brunette who clearly thought herself quite clever, and from the smug look on her face it was very apparent she was quite pleased with her ability to totally scam us.

Now...a scam usually implies a lot of money being given to a person or company under false pretences. Here they sort of piled up drink orders and then turned to Ed and I and said, "Pay." Not a request, a command. It was also clear from this lady's look that she thought she really had scammed us for a lot. But in a country where 34.4 units of their currency equals one of ours, I guess the big numbers seem impressive. In truth I think it was about $25 in total of drink buying before Ed and I decided they were entirely too boring and not worth playing the Russian male game. So right as they came back from dancing and asked me (Ed had gone to the bathroom) to provide them with two more bottles of champagne and 6 vodka-Red Bulls that Edward and I decided it was time to wish them a pleasant evening and offer as our parting gift a "das-vi-danya". There were far too many interesting people in this place to sit and only have ourselves to talk with. We did talk to/dance with a few people of more substance than the initial group but eventually went home with the craziest cabbie I've been with since my first time in Italy. This guy just drove in the tiny median as if it were totally normal and sped really much too fast for his ancient beater of a vehicle.

This brings us to my second (or rather third) rant on Russia. The economy. Every business we utilize - be it restaurants, hotels, taxis or bars - seem to be totally at a loss when we try and pay for something with a 1000 rouble note. More than once I've received one of those low-rising whistles that conveys being impressed with wealth. A 1000 rouble note is roughly equivalent to a $30 bill. Now since we don't have those I will have to compare them to a 20. If you took a cab ride that cost $10 and handed the driver a 20, there's no doubt they'd be able to give you change. At a bar, if you puchased a drink for $5 and handed them a 20, again, no problem. Here it's as if you've asked them to move heaven and earth without stopping for a lunch break. Hence, when the brunette of the aforementioned group looked smuggly at me as if I was some huge sucker for volunteering to buy the first round I was a little confused, given that for 8 people we had bought a bottle of champagne and a few mixed drinks for 600 roubles or about $18. Now, if she had got us to buy her a $300 bottle of champagne, that would have been smug-worthy, but not the Russian equivalent of Cooks...But aside from that, it really is fascinating how amazed merchants here can get when you hand them an equivalent of our 20 dollar bill...also considering that 1000 rouble notes are the only amount ATM's give out here.

At any rate, the night ended with Ed and I have a good long talk about crazy, self-absorbed people, crazy rowing coaches, crazy books and our bodies' uncertainty as to what time it is. Today itself (it's now about 6:30 here) was very slow paced and enjoyable (as seems to be our trend - long day of touring followed by relaxation). We wandered around an open air market, ate lunch, walked the majority of the city and sent a few post cards. The amusing part about the whole post-card-sending-thing was that we were following Lonely Planet's guide to Irkutsk which showed 2 easily accessible post offices. We went into one, headed up to a window and Ed thrust forth his collection of cards and letters asking in Russian for Air Mail. The lady began to scold him (I think) shook her head and thrust the notes back to him. Ed paused and tried again. Then it dawned on him,as it did me. We were in a bank. The tellers had a good laugh at us and we felt like idiots. We'd try again elsewhere. Turns out all of the post offices in Lonely Planet (3 in total) were all banks...

So now here we are, about to go and find dinner before catching a train at around 9:30 for Ulan Ude, which is the next time I will write to you all.

In the meantime: Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Evening and Good Night.

Yay I got the Video to Work!!!

Our first walk on Lake Baikal. This is a brief commentary I thought I'd provide for all of you in the hopes that I could manage to upload videos on blogspot. Good ole google came through for me, as always. So here is us, walking on the lake.

video

Thursday, January 29, 2009

From the Shores of Lake Baikal...

Greetings from Lisvyanka!

Today was, in a word, awesome. Towards the end of yesterday our guide arranged for us to go dog sledding at noon today, which, after breakfast, was exactly what we did. It was unbelievably cold when we set out, well below zero with the windchill and we were walking straight into that wind. So, so cold. So so so so so cold. The fog on Ed's sunglasses turned to ice within moments and when our hands were out of the gloves to adjust something they went numb within moments. Cold. After what seemed like an eternity walking into the cold cold wind (have I mentioned it was cold yet?) we reached the dog sledding place.

Here we not only got to ride in, but also drive a dog sled for a 5 km run. The dogs were extremely friendly and just overwhelmingly excited at the chance of running. There are 54 of them in little huts and each one of them is barking constantly; totally frustrated when they don't get chosen to be hitched up. Eight dogs are selected and harnessed up over about 100 feet of rope at intervals (except for the two closest to the sled) with the best and most clever dog at the very front. As my driver explained to me in half-decent English, it is important to stagger by gender as the males will fight to try and outdo one another if they are next to each other. The males are important for the run however as they have greater strength, but the females are equally as important as they have greater stamina.

The trip took us about 20 minutes and was a ton of fun. We both of course managed to flip our respective dog sleds and fall into the snow, but I gather that happens a lot with people who don't do this with some regularity. The trick is, that when the dogs turn left or right, you two lean left or right. Which totally defies instinct as you naturally want to lean away from the rapidly tilting sled in an attempt to stay upright. This...is a mistake. So, the things one learns in life.

After this we took a hike into "town" and went to a hotel with the only ATM in all of Lisvyanka; because everything in this place runs on cash and as citizens of this 21st century world, Ed and I assumed we would find an ATM everywhere, or that credit cards would be accepted. Turns out that isn't the case. At any rate we had a pleasant and much warmer walk to the marina (yay walking with the wind!) and happened to run into the two Aussies from the train, Matt and Linton. At some point along the walk back we convinced them to come snow mobiling with us. It took about 20 minutes, two cellphone calls, a lot of hand signals and one of three Russian words we knew to get a guide to take us on a two hour excursion into the forests of Siberia.

The Australians hopped on one while Ed and I grabbed our own (us being too tall to share and all). My badass vehicle managed to die everytime they started it, which didn't particularily seem to bother the guide or his coworker any. Damned Russian technology. However, I discovered if I just keep revving the gas it will all be OK. The trip itself was amazing. We headed way out into the forest and stopped at a completely secluded point. The guy took this opportunity to suck down a pack of cigarettes while Ed, Matt, Linton and I took some pictures, laughed about how much fun we were having and share some Pringles (courtesy of our Australian comrades).

Then it was back on the road! Or rather path. The trip back was amusing in that myself and both Australians mangaged to fall off our respective snow mobiles while trying to navigate the ruts in the road and Edward managed to completely kill his. As we speak his vehicle sits abandoned and alone about 20 km outside of the town (I guess they'll deal with it in the morning). In case anyone was worried, falling off of a snow mobile results in a person going from driving it, to leaning away, to sitting on the snow slightly confused. Totally painless and not at all dangerous. At least here.

The views were amazing. We snaked our way through the trees and covered a great deal of land. We were surrounded the entire time by leave-less birches and tall, sky-scraping pines. Looking out through all the trees and seeing the light stretch past the branches was really, really beautiful. Ed managed to convince the guide to take a third stop so he could hike about and take some pictures. (I remained on my snow mobile revving it wiht the hopes that I would not end up like Ed's ride...alone and abandoned 20 km from civilization...Damned Russian technology).

All-in-all today was really very special. The rest of the night consists of eating dinner and taking another trip to the banya (the best way to a deep deep sleep). Edward is in the dining room drinking tea and writing a few postcards. He sends his regards to everyone. As I'm writing this I'm trying to get a video to load of our walk out on Baikal yesterday. In case the sound doesn't transfer it's just me talking to all of you and showing everyone the sights of the lake. I took more video footage today when we went out but I won't show that because A. it will take forever to load a second video and B. it shows ice cracking which might not totally convince Mom and Dad I am capable of making halfway decent decisions. (Really, I am).

Good morning, good afternoon and goodnight to all of you. I will write again tomorrow from the Victory Hotel in Irkutsk.

Armen

A Day of Siberian Forests


The dogs, harnessed up and DYING to get running.



The two Aussies we met gathering supplies at one of our stops during the snow mobiling excursion. Our driver is in the back, smoking one of his 20 cigarettes he consumed during the two 5 minute breaks.


A view of abandoned woodland at our first stop. My ride is the one closest to the camera. Totally cool.


A view out over the untouched tracts of Siberia at our first stop. Unbelievably gorgeous.

Pictures of Lisvyanka Part II


How some people get around in Lisvyanka. The building behind is one of 4,000 churches in this country dedicated to St. Nicholas.



Ed taking a picture of a chunk of ice he'd found and become obsessed with. He thought laying down was especially important. Of course he later threw that at me.



Me standing on the lake. the area there isn't that deep (if I fell in I'd probably be up to my waist or chest) but about 20 feet farther out it drops to over 400 meters and then another 20-30 feet and it drops again. Literally drops. A topographic model in the museum showed just how steep these fall offs are.


Ed taking a stroll over a quarter mile of freezing cold water. In case anyone was concerned the ice is over 2 feet thick here and therefore safe enough for the vehicles which were driven out to gather chunks of ice for some sort of model which was being constructed behind us. The guys doing this had some contraption one of them stood on and cut out blocks which were 2 feet by 1 foot by 1 foot and then these other fellows would lever it out and they'd kick it across the ice back towards the town aways, then a small truck-like thing would pick it up. Ed got some cool pictures of this.

Pictures of Lisvyanka Part I


Ed (in black), our guide Naudia (in red) and a couple of Aussies we ran into on top of the mountain headed out the spit towards the lookout point.


The view up the Angara River which for some reason never freezes, it wraps around the corner and then works it's way up to Irkutsk and the Yensey River.


Ed and I atop the lookout point. An example of the wish ribbons can be seen on the tree but everything behind our guide (photographer) is covered in them. The official begining of Lake Baikal is where you can see the ice.


Yes, even on the holy point atop Lake Baikal people still love him.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

One Last Thing...

As I was rereading that I found a couple of really rather unfortunate spelling errors, so if y'all could just ignore those, that'd be great.

Damned Russian Technology

Ok, so the pictures wouldn't load. Which is annoying. I'll try again later.

Again, from Listvyanka

Hello Everyone!

Today Edward and I just finished a tour of the town Listvyanka, which is situated perfectly on the shores of Lake Baikal and I can honestly say this has been one of the most memorable days of my life. As you can see from the pictures it was absolutely gorgeous out: blue skies, perfect light and a nice, warm temperature of 5 degrees (which beats the -8 when we arrived this morning). Our guide, Naudia, took us first to Chirsky Mount (the pictures of us overlooking the lake and the Angara River). We took a chair lift to the top, headed through the woods out to the out crop which is believed by the natives to be a spiritual point. In keeping with their customs we tied a ribbon each to a tree branch of our choosing while making a wish, as their practice declares: everytime the wind blows across your ribbon, the wish is whispered into the ears of God. Which, ya know, is cool.

The unfrozen Angara River which you can see behind and below us is the only river which flows out of Lake Baikal. Legend says that Old Man Baikal had 336 sons (the number of rivers which flow into the lake) and one daughter, the beautiful but headstrong Angara. He wanted her to marry the weak river Irkut, but she refused and instead longed to be with the powerful Yenisey, which is Russia's longest river. He chained her up to keep her close but one stormy night she escaped and fled north to her lover. In his anger, Old Man Baikal hurled a massive boulder after her and it crashed down upon the trail she had made. It is known as Shaman Rock and the natives used it as a place of spiritual connection or judicial trials. If a man was placed on the rock and survived the night, he was deemed innocent. On the other hand, if a woman was placed on the rock and survived the night, she was deemed guilty and killed when she returned to shore; the logic being that the lake had refused her as a wife and therefore she was tainted with guilt.

After this we went and saw the Baikal museum which, I have to say, is relatively unimpressive except for the two enormously rotund seals which I filmed for awhile. They are really rather cute. I can't believe I just said cute.

The part we'd really been waiting for all day followed the museum and that was a walk out on the lake. I have some cool videos of this too which I will try and post, but I'm not sure this ghetto computer can handle the transfer of information. The pictures don't really do it justice because it's simply not possible to capture the expansive beauty of this place. The lake runs 636 kilometers from North to South and is over 80 kilometers at it's widest point. Roughly where we're standing in those pictures it drops to 400 meters and a bit past that, out in the basin it's nearly a mile deep. The lake holds over 20% of the world's fresh water supply and 90% of Russia's water. If the water were to be emptied out over the world, all of the land would be covered in about a foot of water...which, ya know, is impressive.

Ok, enough education for the day.

The Train Trip:

So, after a few hours of free time in Omsk, which included a run on the treadmills in the local gym (sorry I totally shifted gears on everyone there), we boarded our train. As usual we were in Car 11 (I guess MIR has some arrangement with them involving this particular number) and our providnitsa was pretty nice, but like all Russians, didn't really smile a whole lot. Apparently smiling is an "American concept". We got a terrific sleep that first night and got up in time to read a bit before having one of our half-dressed-slipper-and-overcoat-wearing forrays onto the platform to find lunch/breakfast. As always the babushka's didn't let us down (reliable ol' gals) and we managed to scrounge up some really good potato dumplings and some potato filled bread. Between that and the dried figs we purchased in Omsk we were set for the rest of the daylight hours (not that there are a whole lot of those in Siberia).

This time, more than the last time however, we drew the shocked stares of locals who couldn't figure out why two guys were walking around in gym shorts, slippers and jackets in - 0 degree weather . Crazy Americans...crazy fucking Americans. But we were not deterred and got everything we needed, plus a little fresh air. By the way, Ed and I totally have this down. We board the train and immediately upon entering he throws his bag up in the storage compartment and then I throw mine (hoist and heave really) then we lift up my bed and dump our coats in the compartment there, then lift up his and put groceries. Within 5 minutes we have our clothes hung up and are in our comfortable train clothes (which we packed in our carry-ons). On the platforms we find the babushkas in no time flat (or rather, they find us) and Ed buys some items from one while I buy complimentary items from another. We take turns getting tea and what not from the samovares and generally speaking we have yet to try and kill each other.

However, my grand plans of reading for 20 hours were foiled (happily) by the presense of two Australians we found during our walk through the train. We invited them into our cabin and we began playing cards, eating, drinking a few beers and finally watching a couple episodes of an Australian crime drama on their laptop. Matt and Linton, great guys. Salt of the earth Ed would say. But then again, he said that about those Russian's who turned us into incoherent, piss-drunk (as the Aussie's put it) morons. So...maybe I won't trust him when he calls people that.

It was a really pleasant journey though and those 40 hours just flew by (in a manner of speaking). We arrived in Irkutsk at a very civilized hour and then were driven out to Listvyanka by Naudia and our driver Vladamir. She's really really nice. He's awesome. All in all Ed and I have really lucked out in this town. We're really looking forward to dog sledding (or sledging as the Russian's call it) and snow mobiling tomorrow, in addition to actually doing some of that reading. Another trip to a Russian bath is in our future (this one happens to be private and attached to the hotel), and more or less we plan on having a relaxed, early night.

We're now 16 hours ahead of Seattle, 13 ahead of New York and 5 from Moscow, which apparently is the center of the known universe according to many Russians. At some point I plan on going off on a rant about the Russian culture, their use (or rather un-use) of deodorant, the insanity of their love of paper and the general issues with serving "mystery meat". But that will come tomorrow, or later tonight. I might be too mellow after the banya to get worked up properly.

I wish you all a pleasant tomorrow and I will talk to you later.

Armen

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thoughts on Omsk...

Good Day Everybody,

So now that there are people on both coasts reading this I can no longer direct my greetings only to those living in Pacific Standard Time. Therefore: Good day.

About 2 hours ago Ed and I arrived in Irkutsk (at the end of our 40 hour train trip) and were driven to our hotel, Baikalskie Terema. Which, in case you were curious, is pronounced nothing like it looks. Ed's upstairs napping as we both got a fairly limited sleep last night. Our first night on the train landed us about 10 hours of sleep or so, but after a day of inactivity it just wasn't in the cards for us on the second evening. So we filled our time talking about rowing. Go figure.

The images below belong to our time in Omsk. I have to say, it took me a considerable amount of time to like the place. Our first day was grey, and bleak...much like the city itself. All their old buildings were torn down under the Soviet regime and replaced with wonderfully colored apartment complexes. Wonderfully colored being a euphamism for 7 different shades of grey. Everything in the city dates within the last 50 years and almost all of it is uninviting. In the past two decades they've attempted to spruce the place up a bit by constructing a shopping street (care to guess what it's called? That's right, Lenin Street) in a traditional style. So a lot of winter palace esque looking buildings were actually done in the last ten years or so. Our guided tour of Omsk consisted of driving for a 100 meters, stopping and having our lady turn around and ask, "Do you want to get out and take a picture of this monument?" Here Ed and I turn and look upon one of many, identical monuments that dot the city. "Really, you guys should get out and take a picture, this is a very nice monument." No, actually it's about the same as the last dozen, but OK, when in Rome...

For the record, there have got to be more monuments per capita in Russia than in all other nations of the world combined. It's a bit absurd really, every event in their history seems to deserve a bridge, 5 churches, 2 public parks, 11 buildings and 193.45 monuments. But I digress; the tour did conclude with a walk through the Dostoyevsky museum. I will save my comments on that for some other time, but let me just say I am probably now one of the top 100 most informed people ever to have lived on the life and times of Fodor Dostoyevsky. I even know which way he turned upon entering Omsk for the start of his 4 year sentence (left in case you were curious).

That night and much of the following day we virtually lived in a restaurant which used to be called the Journalist. Its walls are decorated with pictures of journalists and the ceiling has hundreds of newspapers throughout time plastered to it. However, the place changed its name to the Graforman in the last year or so. The word Graforman in Russian means someone who loves literature, loves to write, but isn't a successful writer. It has a negative conotation. Ed and I ate 3 of our 4 meals in Omsk there and discovered they do some mean sushi, good borscht, a decent roast trout (whole trout of course) and a shit steak. Also, this was our first encounter with menus that were completely void of some other language; in all other restaurants we'd been fortunate to have the menus come with English, German or French translations, here...not so much.

However, our second night in the capital of No Where redeemed the city entirely. At the recommendation of our concierge we went to a "club" called Atlantida. This place was ridiculous. The Russians really like to mix their forms of entertainment and thus the place had two bars, a casino, a strip club and a massive dance floor. Apparently bowling alleys and pool halls could also be found in there. There had to be well over 2000 people there and I'm not sure all of them were 18...but in Russia as long as you say you're old enough, and halfway look it, they will let you in. This club was our first experience of near-stardom.

As you might imagine there aren't a whole lot of tourists in the middle of Siberia this time of year, and to imagine this, you would be correct, there aren't. After about two hours in Atlantida everyone knew that there were two foreigners in there, that they were wearing blazers and that they had beards. (Side cultural note: Russian men don't seem to grow out their beards...any of them, so we're really easy to spot). People would come up to us and ask to have their pictures taken with us, or to buy us drinks or simply to stroke our beards. Speaking of beard-stroking we learned that a certain style of beard stroking is actually a highly innappropriate gesture...good to know...

At any rate, Ed fell in love (and then wrote a song called "I Left My Heart in Omsk"; nothing rhymes with that by the way), I got to talk to the concierge for a couple hours and we both got to be mini-celebrities for a while. Then, as with all good things, it had to end and we walked back to our hotel (at 5 am). The next afternoon we boarded the train for the last leg of our journey via the Baikal Express, train 10. A journey I will tell you all about later today, however I must go as our tour is about to start.

Hello from Listvyanka,

Armen

Some Pictures of Omsk


The KGB headquarters, obvious huh?


Me in front of Dostoyevsky's statue, trying to capture his misery and angst with my not-smiling face. (Did I do it?)



A beautiful church in the center of Omsk, which, like all things beautiful and church-like were blown to smitherings under Stalin and then rebuilt in the mid-90's.



My initial feelings of Omsk can be summed up with this picture: bleak, dirty, unmoving and empty. This, by the way was in an amusment park that was still in full swing in the dead of winter. And yes, "It's a Small World After All" was playing in the background.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

P.S.

Everyone, feel free to email me with questions or comments or anything of that nature. My email address is armen.taylor@gmail.com.

A Brief Comment

Hey Everyone,

OK, short update. We arrived in Omsk about an hour ago and I can now officially say I am in Siberia (and Asia for whatever that is worth). The train ride here was nice because we were able to sleep and also because our provodnitsa seemed to love us (plus she was cute as a button). But it was unlike our previous trips; the scenery was different, but not in the way I expected. I thought Siberia would be endless tracts of snow, however it is, instead, endless tracts of dead grass (with snow mixed in) and low-growing trees and abandonned homes. Unlike the previous expanses of Russian landscape which I described as being beautiful in a sad way, this countryside is bleak. It probably feels that way because of what this area has signified for so many over the centuries - a literal death sentence.

The rest of our night was good before hopping on a train and Ed and I managed to have our first real night life experience. Apparently American men are very popular, which was great for our egos, but the language barrier proved to confuse things a great deal.

As for Omsk, I have little to report as I haven't seen anything but I will say one thing about this country as a whole: they love their red-tape. Every hotel requires your provide your passport, immigration card and city registrations of every location you've previously been in. This is all copied and sent to the central immigration offices so that your movements can be tracked. It seems a bit absurd really because I promise you that all of these scraps of paper are getting thrown out: no one really cares what two American students are doing in Siberia. Also this hotel requires we keep our room key and the little slip that they handed us said keys in with us at all times...kind of weird.

Then again, this is a country where a newspaper is slapped with fines and injunctions for printing anything that critizes the government so...one never knows. Just typing that could get me hauled off to a gulag in the next 20 minutes.

I'll write more when I have something of substance to report on.

Cheers,

Armen

Friday, January 23, 2009

Since Last We Spoke...

Good Morning Everybody!

Tonight is our last night in Yekaterinburg, and, to answer my previous question: I am in Asia, but not yet Siberia. That will happen sometime tomorrow afternoon. In a few hours we will be boarding yet another train for our third-leg of this trip. We are only on for 12 hours and will be arriving in Omsk at the very civilized hour of 5:40 pm. Which will beat waking up at 5:40 am...

A lot has happened (sort of) since my last post and I will do my best to write about it while also giving the history of what we've seen, since I haven't really been doing that to date.

First of all: we left Nizhny Novgorod. We boarded a train quite early in the morning and spent a good portion of the trip sleeping. Edward and I both got to enjoy a good deal of reading as there is little else to do on the trains. This country is amazing during the winter. Outside our window rolled a continuing stream of frozen forests, small, abandonned towns and grey skies. It's bleak yet, in it's bleakness there is a surprising beauty. But it is not the beauty I'm sure it represents in the summer months. It is not the beauty of an Italian village or the Swiss Alps; rather it is the beauty of a very sad, forlorn looking woman. One can almost feel this sadness, and yet it does not make the viewer sad, calm yes, but not sad.

After more reading and napping and looking out our window Ed and I decided to forgo the dining car (we'd found it iffy at breakfast) and instead sample the local cuisine. At the town of Balyezino we got off the train and wandered the platform. I'm pretty sure we were a funny-loooking site as we hadn't bothered to get dressed. (On the train we've been wearing gym shorts, t-shirts and slippers as it is too warm for any more clothing). So here we were, two guys well above 6' wandering about in shorts, slippers and huge puffy coats. The guide books talk about how at these smaller stops locals will hawk different goods and it isn't a bad way to scrounge up a meal. Ed found a woman selling roast chicken and boiled potatoes already wrapped up and so while I bought two of those, two beat salads and a loaf of homemade bread (all from different old ladies), Edward managed to find us two bottles of local beers. I wish someone had taken a picture of us: two tall guys buying food from a gaggle of 4-foot-nothing-75-year-old babushkas.

The meal was actually quite good and we polished it all off. After some more reading and napping Edward suggested we go to the dining car and play cards, maybe get a couple more beers. This constitutes his best and worst idea EVER.

We went. We played a little gin. We played a little poker. And, I was in the process of teaching him how to play speed when a man wandered over to us and offered up a bottle of vodka. Now, in addition to giving many good tips the guide books also discuss how Russians want to share with you and, if they come offering drinks, it is very, very rude to deny them. What the guide books don't mention is that the Russians love to get drunk and, more than that, love to get you drunk.

There was no stopping them, and believe me, we tried. Shot after shot after shot of vodka was poured. Round after round was consumed. First the three of us, then two of the restaurant car employees joined in. Then some other people. We speak no Russian and they speak no English, but somehow, despite all of that we solved issues of world peace and the proper method of pouring a drink. We decided Obama was good for the future and that war should be ended. Above all else we decided vodka connects people.

Now, I hate vodka. Hate it. And I should have realized the night was not going as planned when I started to like the vile stuff. Shot after shot after shot. Round after round. Ed and I protested. We told them we had to get off some time. We said we'd had enough. In Russia, there is no such thing as enough. Eventually we pried ourselves away but by then, the damage was done. Edward, being about 30 pounds less than me and having not eaten as much bread as I had was in...not very good shape. How I got him, myself, both our bags, both our carry-ons and all of our personal belongings off that train at 3:30 am I will never know.

What I do know is this: that was two days ago, and we are still slightly hungover. Our guide in the morning was incredibly understanding (we woke up still intoxicated) and she found Ed some sort of miracle-cure-all thing which might have helped, not sure. I somehow managed to pass myself off as totally ok the night before and all yesterday but I felt like 31 different flavors of death. Vodka is refferred to as "The V-Word" and is not to be mentioned, or thought of. Because, if we think of it, we both gag. Neither of us wanted this to happen, but it did. The guide who picked us up extremely early and the other one who gave us our tour at 10 am the following morning both laughed and said that this often happens, it can't be avoided, regardless of one's constitution.

Vodka.

Ick.

Ok, so I don't have much time left on the computer (I'm at an Internet cafe on Lenin Street aka Main Street) so here goes some cultural learning.

Yekaterinburg is known as the place of Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov family's final days. We visited the Church of the Blood which was constructed a few years ago on the site of their execution. A room, matching the same dimensions and in the same location of the room where they died was built in the basement of this cathedral. Several holy relics lie here, including the cross of Nicholas II. Every Romanov male carried this cross (for 300 years of their family's reign) and before that it belonged to a German princess, and before that a French king and before that an English one. Pieces of 40 different relics are encased in this cross (about the length of my middle finger and about half again as wide) including a sliver of wood from the Holy Crucifix itself, or so they say. Apparently it was clutched in his hands when he died.

Originally the city was a refuge for "Old Believers" or people who had not reformed when the Russian Orthodox Faith was revamped. For those who don't know: the Russian Orthodox religion was modelled after the Greek Orthodox one, but somehow, in the initial attempts at translation, various different symbols and practices were lost. After a couple hundred years the Russians presented their holy texts to the Greeks seeking approval. The Greeks immediately burned these as heresy saying that the Russians had perverted the belief system. The Russians tried again but there were many who didn't want to undergo this reform, they were known as the Old Believers and they had to live in secret or far from the eyes of Moscow and St. Petersburg. This all happened in 1672. Fifty years later Peter the Great, in need of his own ironworks foundry sent scientists into the Urals to discover the proper minerals required. They found these here, in Yekaterinburg.

The city got its name from Peter's second wife, Catherine. Normally cities in Russia (at the time) were named after the local river they were on, but the scientists thought Isetsky sounded stupid. They also probably wanted to garner favor with Peter, so they suggested it be named in honor of his beloved wife. During Soviet times the city was renamed Sverdlovsk in honor of the man who orchestrated the execution of the Romanovs. Go figure, the Russian's would name a city after a guy who saw to it that the wife and 4 daughters of the hated Tsar were hacked to pieces with shovels and trowels.

While here we have seen the Church of the Blood, the Ascension Cathedral (home of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch), the Urals Geology Museum/Mineralogy Museum, the Afghan War Memorial and the Europe/Asia marker (about 40 km outside of the city, along the modern Moscow Road). We also went out to the mine where the Bolsheviks tried to dispose of the remains of the Romanov's and their 4 faithful servants. In 2003 it was consecrated as holy grounds and a monestary built atop it. There are 7 churches - one for each of the Tsar's family - but they are not dedicated to the Romanov's, rather, different saints or groups of saints. The technique used to create them was the traditional Siberian wood construction, which is much like the ski lodges of America but with rough-hewn sides and no stone. They are beautiful and inside smell heavily of incense and pine. There are 11 monks who live there and tend to the various buildings and it is a very popular spot for people to come and pay their respects to the murdered family. During the Soviet era it was illegal to even think of the Romanov's but people would come out into the forest and leave crosses near the area of the royal family's impromptu burial. The monestary itself is built throughout the forrest and there is very little open space. Dotting the ground between the trees, the crosses which have gathered for the past 90 years can still be seen.

The city of Yekaterinburg itself has it's beautiful moments. This might just be because it's the first time I've seen blue skies in a long time or because it actually is beautiful. I'm not sure which. One odd thing about it is that whenever one turns on the hot water the most unusual smell comes out. It's kind of like the fat of bacon being cooked on a grill. But not when it smells good, rather when it has been left to sit or something. It's hard to describe. Showering requires a lot of breathing through one's mouth.

Well, with all of these interesting little tidbits I have uncovered I will leave you all to ponder the meaning of life and the sins of our forefathers. Or at least the sins of the Latvian 11 - the name given to those who shot, stabbed and hacked apart the Romanov family. It is a sin that the whole country seems intent on repenting for. Much like modern Germans seem to do in regards to the Holocaust. Also, as promised, I will give you a haiku. Now, while it is not dedicated to some nonexistant counter-culture movement in the 1980's or 90's, I did see it on a T-Shirt once, and it's kind of funny.

Haikus can be ccool
But sometimes they don't make sense
Refrigerator

Next time on "Armen's Trans-Siberian Account", Omsk, and whatever it has to offer...

Cheers,

Armen

Oh, I Forgot this Picture


Here Ed and I are shaking hands across the divide between Europe and Asia. There are, of course, pictures of each of us individually straddling the boundary.

Another Batch of Yekaterinburg Photos


Ed taking a picture of the Black Tulip Memorial, dedicated to the soldiers of Yekaterinburg who were killed in the Afghan War. The name is derived from the term used for the planes which flew the coffins back (The Black Tulips). Each pillar represents a year of the war and has the names of the local soldiers who were killed during that year. They are arranged to look like a cross section of a cargo plane. In the middle slouches a war weary Russian fighter. The artist's ability to capture the thousand-yard stare is truly impressive.


Me in front of the monestary. It is -2 degress right now and that hot chocolate in my hands has got to be one of the best tasting and most appreciated drinks in the history of hot beverages.


One of the 7 churches built to honor the Romanov's in the monestary.


A statue in honor of the two scientists who officially founded the city of Yekaterinburg in 1723. They are known to the locals as "Bevis and Butthead"...oh MTV culture.

Some Photos of Yekaterinburg


If you give a moose a muffin, he'll probably want another. If you give two boys a massive ice and snow covered lake, one of them will probably write his name...



...And the other will probably write something like this after it.


Ed and I wandering out onto the city pond (actually the River Iset). During the winter it is frozen solid and is used as a walkway for people to get from one end of the city to the other (it spans a distance of 1 km by 300 meters.



This is part of a large and beautiful memorial dedicated to all the prisoners of political persecution, ranging from the Tsars to the fall of the Soviet Union. On this site over 18,000 people were taken into the woods off of the Moscow Road and shot. There's a huge cross just to the left and rings of these blocks with the names of those killed.

Pictures of Our Trains


This is a picture of our second train, the one we took from Nizhny Novgorod (Gorky in Train speak) to Yekaterinburg (Svetlovsk).


This was the first train we took, the overnight from Moscow. It was really nice inside and our provodnitsa loved us...the same cannot be said for our second attendant.



The exterior of our first train.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pictures Part II


This is a church on the opposite side of the river. The kremlin is just out of the picture behind me. Those two vast fields of white are the Volga and Olka Rivers, which meet just to the right of this picture.


One of the many run-down buildings I mentione here in Nizhny Novgorod.


The shopping street, looking up towards Gorky's Memorial Park.



Me in front of the church from above and the Oka River.



A beautiful church we went into during one of the celebrations of the day's festivities. Ed and I were the only two people in there who spoke English it seemed.



Pictures Part I


This is a view of the Kremlin from on top of oscow's Church of Christ the Savior on the banks of the Moscow River (which you can just see to the right).


This is Red Square, the Kremlin is to the left with Lenin's tomb in front and G.U.M. - Moscow's famous department store - to the right. In the middle is an ice rink...


Ed and I in front of the famous St. Basil's Cathedral. (Sorry it's turned, the instructions on this computer are in Russian so I can't figure out how to flip it).




One of Moscow's "Underground Palaces" aka The Metro.


The G.U.M. Department store lit up. This photo was taken about a minute after the one at the top of the page was, without the lights.



Now Where Was I...?

Hello All,

Today marks many things in the world. First and foremost Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th US President 45 minutes from now (it is 7:15 pm here in Nizhny Novgorod). Also, and possibly just as important: I will be boarding a train in a few hours and heading on my way to Eketarinbourg, which lies on the other side of the Ural Mountains, meaning I will be officially in Siberia. I think. Or Asia. One of the two. Or both. I'll check on that and get back to you.

At any rate not much has happened since I last wrote. We finished our day of touring, came back and completely crashed as we were so tired. Then we woke up, got ready, and headed out to see what Russia's "Third Capitol" had to offer. There is this very cool pedestrian street which runs from the old city kremlin to a park dedicated to Maxim Gorky (just like everything else in this city) and it is apparently 3 kilometers long...though I've walked it a half dozen times at least and I'm beginning to doubt that. Still, it's a good distance and is home to nothing but shops, cafes, restaurants and theaters, so it has a lot to offer.

Ed and I found a restaurant there which was a nice place and did a very good do of rabbit over whipped potatoes. (Fyi: EVERYTHING in this country includes meat and potatoes, even dessert it seems like). After that we headed off in search of a true Russian night club. Two things were working against us in this endeavour; first it was a Monday night, second it was a Russian Orthodox holiday. Basically we were shit out of luck. BUT, on the bright side we did get to walk all over the city and it was very beautiful because it was snowing so damned much, but not so aggressively as to make being outside unpleasant.

The night ended in failure and after reading about four sentences of Tolstoy I passed out. We finally managed to wake up at about 11:30 (the first time we've slept past 9 am). We had a luxuriously paced day which included a 2 hour lunch at this fun place near where we had had dinner. I must report that both restaurants have very interesting and dressing-heavy versions of a Ceasar salad. After this we walked around and took some pictures of several of the many dilapidated buildings which make up the back streets of Nizhny.

By the way, I'm almost positive that simply referring to this city as "Nizhny" would be like calling LA "Los". But whatever...

So we walked around a bunch, took some pictures, found a coffee shop and spent over an hour there. Really nice day. Culturally speaking we weren't missing a lot because after seeing one Gorky Museum, you've seen them all; and after walking about their kremlin, there isn't a whole lot of historic importance to see in this city. This brings us to the rest of the night, which is going to include watching Obama become president, eating dinner (I hope) and going to bed early enough that waking up at 4 am won't COMPLETELY suck.

The next time I write I will be in Siberia. Or Asia. Or one of the two. Or both.

Cheers,

Armen

Monday, January 19, 2009

Shvitz Me!

Ok, so, since the last time I posted I have been beaten by sticks in the company of naked men, seen a movie with Russian subtitles, taken the first step on my Trans-Siberian train journey and discovered that pretty women seem to always be attached to ugly gangsters.

Now to explain all of that...

After my last post Edward and I went to a Russian Bath (or Bahnya) and discovered a very strange culture that is a mainstay for men in this country. The bathouses are like social clubs and a lot of men (a hundred easy) gather in their local place and stand around naked while talking, eating fish or drinking beer. Throughout this process they will go into this absurdly hot sauna, hit themselves with branches and then leave, only to jump into FREEZING cold water. The signs are very serious when they warn this is not for people with heart conditions. No joke, my heart literally stopped when I got in the water, it is THAT cold and THAT shocking. A lot of people sort of scream in this intense, challenging fashion.

After that we ate at a vegetarian restaurant near the hotel which served Russian classics sans meat...which is an oxymoron but it's ok, we'll forive them.

The next day Ed and I went to this market which is kind of like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul except colder. We spent the day touring around and looking at all the different things that were offered. There are a lot of fake watches, fake Soviet memorabilia, antiques, war souveneirs and the like. (By the way, I apologize for any misspellingsss the computr is going really slowly so as I type only every few letters makes it, then I delete to get back and only a few of those show up: I completed typing everything in this parenthesis before the first letter of it appeared).

Towards the end of the day we went and got lunch in this cafe that was so smokey and dark it seemed almost impossible for that to have happened without intent. As in: let's make the smokiest darkest cafe we possibly can...

That night we went to see the Swan Lake Ballet at the Bolshoi Theater near Red Square. Now, ballet requires backstory to figure out what is happening at the best of times, which is impossible when all announcements are in Russian. So it was an experience.

The next day Edward, Irenna and I continued our tour of Moscow. This was our last day and there was still a lot to see. We met at noon when we checked out of the Hotel Budapest and headed off to the Pushkin museum. We saw the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist building but didn't go into the main structure because there was a massive line and as Irenna put it: "When people talk about going to the Pushkin they mean where we were, not there." So we went and got a meal at an Azherbijani restaurant and discovered "kebab" does not mean what it means in the US...good to know.

After this we did an extensive tour of the truly massive museum of Russian Art. Very cool stuff, spanning several centuries and again, Irenna's knowledge was encyclopedic. A lot of what we saw was initially done as a form of mimicking the European greats, but eventually a distinct Russian style was formed.

This was followed by a movie to kill some awkward dead time before we left. We were picked up at 11 pm and taken to the train station. Let me just say: the Trans-Siberian railways are awesome. They go for thousands of miles and are COMPLETELY punctual...very unusual for those of us used to Amtrak's haphazard approach to timing. The train left at exactly 11:52 pm and we settled into our little cabin, which was quite nice despite being the size of a postage stamp.

This morning was a little rougher as we had to wake up early to get off at Nizhny Novgorod. Our driver picked us up exactly at 7:19 when we arrived (God bless Mir Corp) and took us to our hotel. Unfortunately there had been some misunderstanding and so our 11 o'clock tour which was supposed to start late enough to give us time to nap and eat, began at 8...not so much time to nap and eat.

Our guide was also much less talented than Irenna. She get's an A for effort but a D for execution. She is a preschool teacher and therefore repeats everything under the assumption we aren't following. At the Gorky Childhood Museum (a 5 room house where Maxim Gorky grew up) she said the following (best example): "Here against the wall are chest with drawers, chest with drawers, I repeat, here against the wall are chest with drawers"...Ed and I are literally standing right next to these..."Do you understand, here against the wall are chest with drawers". Yes, we got it, thank you.

There isn't actually much to see historically speaking, besides the Gorky Museums (3 of them) the crafts museum an the kremlin.

More to come later...

Friday, January 16, 2009

And Now, For a More In Depth Analysis

Ok, so, here we are. Everyone together? Great.

The flight to Amsterdam (as I previously mentioned) was great. Airbus 330, Northwest Airlines, Business Class...awesome. It was a really nice trip and after 9.5 hours and another hour of taxiing I arrived in the Amsterdam Airport. Slight confession Mom and Dad: I went into Amsterdam. I had time to kill and there was a train that ran every 10 minutes and took 15 minutes to get in to Amsterdam Central etc. So I went in, walked around, watched a city wake up, took some pictures, drank a coffee and then took the train back. Waited for awhile more and then boarded Aeroflot Flight 230...

Now, here's the thing with Aeroflot: it's terrifying. The captain and co-pilot are probably drunk. The stewardesses walk around constantly, taxiing, take-off, landing; constantly moving. Passengers, same thing. A guy got up and went to the bathroom as we were landing and...no one cared. In the US, that is like...law-suit city. Here...totally normal. Very strange.

Also the landing gear barely came up into the aircraft and only after making a ton of noise and shuddering around. Not entirely settling.

As for Moscow: first of all, there appear to be only 10 customs agents for the ENTIRE Moscow Airport. We landed the plane, everyone stood up and then we just waited in the aisles for 30 minutes while the walk way operators just stood there staring at us. Then we took a short bus trip and were herded into this building. Everyone was smoking. And then...we stood. For. Ever. Each person took about 3 minutes to go through. These were either the most diligent 10 customs agents in the history of customs agents or the most incompetent. I'm leaning towards the latter.

The flight's duration was 2 hours and 45 minutes. Which is coincidentally the exact amount of time it took from when the plane came to a complete stop to when I exited the Moscow Airport, Terminal Two. And I thought Seattle was bad...

Driving into Moscow itself is kind of a bizarre experience. One understands how depressing it must have been to live here during communism. The apartment blocks are uniform gray, uniform shape, uniform size and stacked up next to each other. Then suddenly you're passing 17th-century "town homes" of the Russian nobility and beautiful churches and an untold number of monuments. The difference between what this city was, what it became and what it has become is so clearly defined. There is no middle class in Russia. That niche in America that is filled with people who don't make a lot of money but still enough to buy what they want, make morgage payments and send their kids to state schools simply doesn't exist here. There are those who live hand-to-mouth and those who have so much money that they compete to see who can spend more on the exact same product.

The joke here is that there are two women at a party in Moscow comparing the exact same purse. One says, "I got this for $350 in Paris." And the other woman goes, "Ha! I got this for $500 in London." This is reflected in the absurd mark up of clothes and jewelry. But also in that these stores are empty because one someone has bought a bunch of stuff from a place, they grow tired of it and move somewhere else for shopping. Another example of this is restaurants. 2/3 of the restaurants in our 2007 edition guide books aren't open anymore. This isn't because they've gone out of business, but because the owner shut them down in order to operate another one. The nouveau riche get bored easily in this city and so restauranters will open one establishment and while it is thriving be building another one. Because, inevitably, after 6-12 months these places will no longer be considered GQ and will immediately lose their clients. But...if a new restaurant opens "Brought to you by the man who started The Fairy" then everyone will go there, even though they just got bored of The Fairy.

Weird.

Jerry would constantly be opening new restaurants and closing old ones here. Which would really dampen our style of going to Carnegies every week.

It's also strange because the streets are completely void of people. The department stores are completely void of people. it is kind of unsettling at first. Then you learn the true genius of the Russian system: crosswalks go under the street. This way cars don't have to stop and wait for pedestrians to cross...they can just keep driving. The department stores...not so much in the genius category...

But all that said the place is gorgeous. Our tour guide - Irena (Ih-raynah) - is wonderfully fluent, wonderfully funny and wonderfully knowledgeable. We drove around for a bit and she showed us the outer perimeter of Moscow before we left our driver somewhere and got into the true meat of the place. We visited the famous Church of Christ the Savior on the banks of the Moscow River which has an unparalled view of the Kremlin and Red Square (I will post pictures as soon as I find a computer with a USB port. By the way: isn't the point that they are supposed to be Universal?). At any rate, we went to all sorts of places yesterday (a couple churches and a convent) before we took a tour of the metro system.

Let me say this: New York, London, Paris etc. ain't got shit on Moscow. It is unreal. Each station looks like a palace. They have frescos. They have mosaics. They have bronze sculptures. They have stain glass. Each one has a different theme. Some are 150 meters in length and others are 100 meters underground. They are also pristine. And here's the kicker, a train comes every 2 minutes (1:45 during rush hour). Unlike in New York where if you miss a train you might have to wait 10 minutes, here you have to stand for all of 90 seconds before the light of the next train can be seen.

And the trains are pristine!

Amazing.

Last night Edward and I went to the Cafe Pushkin which is quintessential Russia. This place has been part of the social scene in Moscow for years and remains a classic establishment: protected from the frailty of trendiness. The waiters are dressed as they would've been in the 19th century. It was really fun. Also entirely civilized. We arrived at 9 pm and left at 11:30 and the place was packed the entire time. The meal was really good except for 2 things: one, vodka came with the first 2 courses and the 5th course (and I hate vodka), two the fourth course (ie main one) smelled like terrible body odor and tasted like dirty feet. To make up for this Ed and I used Elizabeth Taylor's (grandma not actress) technique of cutting it up into little bits and pushing it around consciously until it looked like we'd eaten half of it.

The other four courses were really good so...ya know...80% isn't bad. Then we got a tour of the upstairs. Which was cool.

Today we did the Armoury, the Kremlin, Red Square and the G.U.M. Department store. Yes I will be posting pictures of all these places and yes I will have stories to tell in person. As for now I will say the following: the Russians have an obsession with guilded and impractical carriages, the police are assholes, the police are scary, the Kremlin doesn't look nearly as imposing as I imagined, Red Square is beautiful, Lenin's tomb is weird, tipping more than 10% blows people's minds and they make delicious club sandwhiches.

I will elaborate a little bit on those later but I'll give a brief example of the police here. First of all they look like soldiers and always travel in numbers. They also are on power trips because they know we won't mess with them. In the US if a cop was being a jerk you could get his name and badge number and threaten to sue or something. Here, one has the impression that even if they were to take your camera and smash it on the ground you would just stand and say nothing. We had been warned by people who had previously been to Russia and by guidebooks that one should always have their passport and immigration/registration forms on hand. Turns out one should also have a copy of their passport on hand and if someone asks you for said passport, give them said copy.

As we were walking through the gardens near the kremlin a cop came up to us and demanded to see our passports and immigration forms (he already had one guy's passport in his hand and the guy was following him around looking terrified). We showed him our passports (we didn't understand the part about the forms) and he was looking all triumphant. Then our guide asked him if he was an immigration officer because otherwise he had no business asking us for these forms. He immediately let us go. If we hadn't had our forms he would have "fined" us, knowing we would try and bribe him more than the cost of the "fine" in an attempt to not be on record. Because, over here, bribery is totally acceptable...in fact it's expected.

Ok, I need a nap, words aren't forming in my mind at the moment.

Later tonight we might go to the most famous bathhouse in Moscow...where they hit you with branches to cleanse you...Russians are weird.

Cheers all,

Armen

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Brief Update

Hey All,

Ok, so I really don't have a lot of time to write because our tour starts in 20 minutes and I have to grab breakfast but I will just give a short notice.

Arrived in Amsterdam after a very pleasant flight.

Arrived in Moscow after a flight in which I was convinced the plane was going to come apart in the air.

After standing in line for 1 hour and 45 minutes to get through Passport Control, I decided Russia is the most ass-backwards country in the Norther Hemisphere.

Moscow itself is beautiful but very strange. Strange in that it expanded far beyond what it was capable of supporting. The wave of new rich caused businesses to open up Chanels, Pradas, Saks Fifths etc all over the place. But there were never enough rich people to keep these stores full so what ends up happening is that there are MASSIVE shopping centers COMPLETELY void of people. Actually very creepy.

Other than that: it's amazing. The kremlin looks gorgeous covered in snow and all of the old buildings we have visited are striking. Our guide is very very cool and their metro system is better than anything I've ever seen in the Western world.

My next post will be much more in depth and have lots of pictures attached from the last few days.

Armen

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"We View Ourselves on the Eve of Battle..."

Well, here I am. It's a bit after 12:30 in morning on Tuesday, January 13th, 2009. Less than twelve hours from now I'll be sitting in a plane ready to leave for foreign shores and exotic ports. Or, in reality: frozen shores and heated bars...that has a nice ring to it.

At any rate, here I am. I have packed, cleaned my room and begun the process of trying to upload as much music onto my iPod as I can before going to bed. I'm finally getting tired but I've spent the entire day in a continual state of active excitement. This...is totally cool. In less than twelve hours I will be embarking on a journey that is going to take me around the world. Literally. My path will take me from Seattle to Amsterdam and then to Moscow. After 5 days in Moscow I am going to take an overnight train ride to Nizhny Novgorod where I am going to explore Russia's "third capital" for 3 days. From there it is another overnight trip to Ekaterinburg a place where, in 1918, the last Czar of Russia and his family were executed. After a couple days there I will hop a short (few hour) train to Omsk. Omsk (note to be mistaken with Tomsk) is smack in the middle or Russia...no seriously, it is. After two days in Omsk I will spend roughly 36 hours aboard the train on my way to Irkutsk and Listvyanka, on the shores of Lake Baikal. After a few days playing around there I am headed to the eastern shores of the world's deepest lake to a town called Ulan Ude, where I will leave the Trans-Siberian Railway in exchange for the Trans-Mongolian. This will take me down through Mongolia to the capital UlaanBaatar (which has aprox. 358 different spellings best as I can tell). After 3 days in city-by-the-steppes I will head down into China and across to Beijing. After a few days in Beijing I will finish the trip by flying to Tokyo and from Tokyo, back to Seattle.

As Bob pointed out I seem very confident in my ability to live through this entire experience. (Bob, thank you for your faith in my abilities...Tom, the same goes to you).

I hope to be able to write to you all through this blog on a near daily basis, the only exceptions being the days I'm on trains. Every city will have it's own posting, at the very least.

I must leave now, "Little Wing" by Hendrix just came on and I need to appreciate it fully; I will talk to you all from Moscow.

Cheers,

Armen

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

To Begin...

Let me start by saying I am not overly enthused with the idea of blogging. A lot of people use blogs as a method to vent their teenage angst and sexual frustration in the forms of bad poetry and emo rants. Now, one could argue there is no such thing as bad poetry, but I am going to have to disagree. Just like there is bad art. Sorry mom but Giuliani was right, Jesus in a vat of urine doesn't belong in the Met. Now, granted, he did it for other reasons, but the point remains the same: bad art.

The trick to blogging (as I am quickly discovering) is not to get lulled into believing that it is just a journal...it isn't. People can read it. Anyone who thinks of typing in the website: Armen's Trans-Siberian Account can access this. Bloggers often forget this when they talk about their ex-girlfriends or high school crushes; everyone can read it, and if anyone cares what you have to say about the aforementioned, it could be bad. I think it would be bad for murderers to have blogs, they might make the mistake of confessing. Or maybe that would be a good thing.

The point is this: blogging can be dangerous, or addicting. More than one soul has been sucked into the vortex of constantly updating their self-created fan base of every move they make, and unless these people are friends or family, chances are they don't actually care. This is not a cynical statement, but a truthful one; I have read a couple blogs by people who make announces to the masses and all their fellow readers. The problem is that not that many people read what 15-year-olds post online.

Then, of course, there is the useful kind of blogging, like Anderson Cooper and Campbell Brown on AC 360 (sorry Tom), or Jarone and company of Riviera Home Finders. These are positive blogs, blogs whose purpose is to inform, educate and generally brighten the days of their real fan base. And, while Tom may not read the AC 360 blogs, I know he does read the RHF group's. As a matter of fact, so do I.

Blogs can be good, or bad, or simply just there. A good blog brightens every one's day, teaches them of new cultures and imparts knowledge of foreign policy and international goings-on. A bad blog, conversely, is one that stumbles through the author's daily habits, the health of his or her goldfish, the look that girl gave in 2nd period Statistics, the new fact of a celeb-crush or, worse, a haiku dedicated to the nonexistent counter-culture revolution of 1998. A blog which is simply just-there, offers insight into neither an indigenous people nor a bored 13-year-old. My goal is to avoid being the latter two. My goal is to highlight the glories of foreign travel and to fill the reader with a yearning for knowledge. My goal is to instill a sense of adventure and understanding. My goal is to pass on unique customs of the Eurasian people (and maybe even a furry-Soviet hat or two).

However, I am certain that my blog will drift into the annoyingness (yes I just made that up) of morose-introspection and the uselessness of pointless babble. I am also certain that, just for the fun of it, I will, sometime in the next 5 weeks, write a haiku dedicated to the nonexistent counter-culture revolution of 1998.

This, ladies and gentlemen, has been an example of what can happen if I'm given room to ramble...which is to say, I will ramble.

Thank you and Good Night.