Some photos and a few thoughts

As I travel around the world — and especially on this trip to the Russian Far East — I’m reminded how incredibly lucky Americans are… and how we are only part of a much larger world. I think Americans — including myself — often forget these realities. I’ve been thinking a lot about both of these things over the past couple of weeks, talking with people and taking photos, some of which I’ve included below:

Hot water pipes
Hot water pipes

These pipes, which have a diameter of about 30 inches (most of which is probably insulation) carry hot water throughout the city. They power the radiators in Vladivostok‘s apartment buildings. That means the city decides when to turn on the heat for (pretty much) every building in Vladivostok. Ah, centralized control.

Girls at play
Girls at play

These three girls discovered I was American when I spoke with my interpreter, making them very curious about me indeed. They kept shouting English phrases at me (“What is your name?!” “How old are you?!”) and then shrieking and running away. They were very cute and made me yearn to see my own daughter even more.

Outside of Soviet submarine
Outside of Soviet submarine

This is an old WWII-era Soviet submarine. It sits next to the water in Vladivostok. Taking a tour costs about $3. On the day I visited, there were about 8 brides wandering around with their grooms and wedding parties.

Soviet torpedoes
Soviet torpedoes

The interior of the submarine is split into two primary areas. The first is more of a museum with artifacts, photos and information. The second part is the submarine much as it existed when it was in use. That includes wooden drawers for maps, a working periscope (more on that in a moment), instruments, a photo of Joseph Stalin, and torpedo bays, which you can touch. Just don’t push the red button.

View through a periscope
View through a periscope

Inside the sub is a working periscope. I put my camera up against the viewfinder and snapped this shot of my peering out over the bay at a British naval ship.

End of the line
End of the line

What’s interesting about this photo isn’t me, but what I’m leaning on. This is the marker indicating the end of the Trans Siberian Railroad. It’s only 9,288 kilometers to Moscow. In the 1950s, it took 18 days to cross Russia on this railroad. Now it takes about seven. I rode it overnight to Khabarovsk (the initial K is silent).

Russian Orthodox church
Russian Orthodox church

At the top of the hill from my hotel in Khabarovsk is this church. It is a copy of one that existed on the same site in the pre-Soviet days, but was destroyed when the U.S.S.R. purged religion from the country. Regardless of one’s religious or political views, from an aesthetic perspective, it’s quite beautiful, I think, as are the many other gleaming churches dotting Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.

View from Khabarovsk
View from Khabarovsk

As the sun sets over the Amur River, which flows out of China to the Straight of Tartary, one can see China on the horizon. The fish in this river used to be plentiful, locals have told me, but with pollution and toxic spills from China, it’s no longer safe for drinking, swimming or fishing.

And with that, I am off to deliver a lecture to Khabarovsk citizens interested in listening in meeting a real live American. I hope I have enough energy to make it worth their while.

Random notes on Russia

As I wind up my last few days in the Russian Far East, I’ve compiled a short list of odd things I’ve noticed:

Elevator confusion

In my elevator at the hotel in Vladivostok, I couldn’t find my floor number (9). It took me a minute, and then I realized why. The numbers went up and down, rather than across.

For example, I was expecting this:

9 10
7 8
5 6
3 4
1 2

But instead, they went like this:

6 12
5 11
4 10
3 9
2 8
1 7

Obviously not a big deal, but enough to temporarily confuse me, which isn’t hard to do.

You talking to me?

Pretty much every conversation between two men speaking Russian to each other sounds like an argument to the death. Sometimes it is. Other times it’s just someone ordering soup at a restaurant.

Also, though I surely don’t speak Russian, I definitely have noticed that the Russian Far East accent is far more pleasing than the Moscow accent, which has a sneering sound to my ear.

And we’re on!

For some reason I truly don’t understand, I’ve been interviewed on TV at least four times and radio once. It’s very humbling, but I’m baffled by the attention. It’s also slightly embarrassing when I’m asked questions I have no idea about, like my impressions of Russian media or who I think was at fault for a recent Russian-Georgian conflict. I’m honest and say that I don’t know, but I feel kind of sheepish.

I’ll have the borscht to go

Granted, my introduction to Russian cuisine was airline food, so that’s not a fair assessment, and when I’ve eaten at a Russian home, the fare has been very good. But, I would not put Russia on any culinary must-do lists. Maybe I’m still smarting from the breakfast buffet at my Vladivostok hotel, which featured such morning delights as eel, kim chi and eggplant soup.

Of course, I’ve also had some real delights, including banana crepes with chocolate, beef stroganoff, black rice with seafood and some of the best sweet and sour pork I’ve ever had.

Green means go; Yellow means go faster; Red means whatever you want it to mean

In Vladivostok, at least, traffic lights seem to be a luxury provided to few intersections. And even those that have them seem to use them more for decoration than for practical use, at least judging by the reaction of drivers. It’s as if they are mere guides or suggestions, rather than actual laws. In Khabarovsk, it seems they are both more prevalent and binding.

Rules are for breaking

All in all, I’m struck by what seems to be a culture of rules, few of which are followed. Could this be a holdover from Soviet times? I don’t know.

More observations — and photos — to come.