War in the streets

Yesterday I witnessed my first bribe.

It was in the early evening and my chaperone, Vadim, and I were returning from a lovely dinner at an outdoor cafe situated high in the hills overlooking little Dushanbe. As we wound our way back through the small city, Vadim was busy navigating the Byzantine network of roads leading back to my hotel. We took a left onto the main boulevard — a beautiful tree-lined street with a lush green canopy — when he suddenly pulled over and hopped out.

Continue reading “War in the streets”

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.

Russian banya

Once I finally got over the worst of the jet lag this week, I finally had a chance to experience some Russian culture.

On Thursday, my guide, Dima, took me to his dacha, which is sort of like an American cabin. As I understand it, in Soviet times people were given a small plot of land on which they could build a 6-meter by 6-meter one-story cabin — or dacha — to get away from the city. It also afforded a chance for Russians to cultivate a small vegetable patch for themselves.

Soviet-era dacha
Soviet-era dacha

Today, many Russians are expanding their dachas with additional floors. In Dima’s case, he’s also added a banya, or Russian sauna, as a separate building. As Dima explained to me, a real banya is heated by a small wood stove (electric saunas need not apply).

As we prepared the banya, I started thinking about what I was going to wear. I hadn’t brought shorts or a bathing suit with me. As if reading my mind, Dima said, “In Russian banya, we usually just wear towel, but I can give you shorts if you want.”

I didn’t want to seem prudish, so I said a towel would be fine. Then I noticed a string of twigs hanging in the banya.

“What are those?” I asked.

“Those are for massaging in the banya,” he said. He then explained that the bunches of twigs are soaked in hot water to release their aromas and then smacked against the naked backside. “The hot water releases the raisins,” he said. Raisins? What raisins? What kind of freaky things is this.


Days later I realized he didn’t say “raisins,” but “resins.”

Smacking branches
Smacking branches

Babushka’s feast

While the banya heated up, we returned to the dacha for dinner. Dima’s mother in law was preparing a fresh vegetable salad. She mixed fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and some kind of squash with some oil and salt. It was marvelous to watch this old woman — a classic Russian babushka — put together this colorful and tasty meal in a tiny kitchen powered by a small wood stove. She spoke to me in rapid Russian and even though I clearly didn’t understand a word she was saying, continued to talk to me as if I was family.

As she spoke, I could see most of her teeth were capped in gold. Her face was worn but contented and her white hair contrasted with her colorful dress. I asked if I could take her picture, but she demurred, covering her mouth.


I moved into the next room and sat down with Dima and two of his friends. His mother in law started bringing us the food she had prepared: the tomato salad, borscht, salty pickles, fresh berry juice, fresh tomato juice and fresh bread. It was perfect. We toasted with some cognac and I sat and listened to my host laugh and tell stories with his friends in Russian.

With a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling (the dacha wasn’t yet finished), it wasn’t hard to imagine this being Soviet Russia where people congregated at home in small groups to share meals and happiness.

Generals v. Genitals

As dinner ended, Dima announced the the banya was ready. As I disrobed, Dima sought again to reassure me. “In Russia we have a saying: ‘There are no genitals in Russian banya.'” I smiled and thought about this. Then I wondered, did he say “genitals” or “generals”?

As I pondered this question (eventually concluding that he actually said “generals”), he continued to reassure me. “A friend in America who loves Russian banya says there this is only for the gays. But here it is normal.”

An image of being sodomized by a bunch of hot wet branches flashed through my mind, but no matter. It was banya or bust.

I stepped into the hot and humid room and was instantly transported to Washington, D.C., in August. And then it got hotter. And hotter. Dima added water and said, “This opens the pores, letting the fat and bad juices out.”

I was all for letting fat seep out of my body, so I sat. Beads of sweat appeared on my skin. Then Dima handed me a woolen hat.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I thought to myself. A woolen hat? I gave a little laugh and asked, “why a hat?”

“Feel your hair,” he advised. I did and it was scorching hot. I donned the hat and suddenly my head felt surprisingly cooler. Dima put on his own cap, which was shaped as if it were a Soviet pirate’s hat.

Then it was time for the massage. Laying myself down on the towel, Dima shook the wet branches over my skin and then started slapping and massaging. It took me a few minutes to relax, but once I did, it was surprisingly therapeutic. The odors of the branches were sweet and oaky. Then it was time to get hosed down.

Dima sent me into the cold autumn air and had me drop my towel. He then sprayed me with cold water from the hose. It was both shocking and refreshing. Then it was back into banya.

I couldn’t take much more of the heat. My head started to swim and my heart was pounding. I felt drunk… and overheated.

Exiting the room, I sat in the cool air and tried to get the dizziness to pass. I could imagine being rushed to the hospital and having the Russian doctors laugh at me for not being man enough to handle a Russian banya. I could even imagine the put downs, “Clearly there wasn’t a general in this banya! HAHAHA.”

As the dizziness subsided, I returned to the dacha and noticed Dima’s mother in law preparing dessert: small pancakes with fresh jam. While Dima and his friends continued their banyas, I devoured three or four pancakes and then nodded off to a restful sleep on the couch.

To Red Square, comrade!

My itinerary called for a 12-hour layover in Moscow, which I was actually rather pleased about. I figured that would give me enough time to leave the airport and sojourn to Red Square, which is exactly what I did. After checking my large bag, I toured the airport in search of lockers to stash my two heavy carry ons. Unfortunately, I found none and resolved to lug them around the city. Heck, it would give me a nice workout anyway.

As is often the case, the airport was about 40 miles outside of town. I was advised that Moscow traffic is terrible and that I’d be best served taking an express train downtown. Indeed, I found the AeroExpress train waiting outside the airport, promising a swift 45-minute trip to the city, from where I could take a subway to Red Square.

Aeroexpess Train
Red train to Red Square

I stepped onto the platform with my roundtrip ticket (500 rubles, or about $15) and set my bags down on the wet ground. Within 20 minutes, a long red train pulled up to the platform. I stepped in and plopped down into one of the poorly cushioned seats.

The train, like much of Russia, struck me as a strange amalgamation of Soviet and capitalist thinking. It’s like the commercial, “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” only here it’s “you got capitalism in my communism!”

Example 1: The airport was clearly built with large, visually heavy concrete blocks, but now there’s an effort underway to cover the concrete with a Gehry-esque draping of mirrored windows flowing in and out like falling fabric.

Example 2: The train is quite spartan with hard surfaces designed for easy cleaning. And yet at each end hangs a “SAMSUNG LED!” TV playing a loop of highly produced commercials for Radisson hotels, luxury cars and other consumer goods.

In Moscow

The ride into Moscow was uneventful and I enjoyed looking out the window at the forests, dilapidated buildings, train yards and such. When we finally pulled into the Moscow station, I found my way to the subway and then a map of Moscow.

Staring at the map, I realized I had (a) no clue where I was and (b) no idea how to get where I wanted to go.

I stood there for a few minutes, waiting for someone else to step up to the map too, hoping I could buttonhole him/her and get some answers. Sure enough, a young man stepped up and I was able to pantomime “here,” eliciting a finger pointing at one station on the map. Then I said, “Kremlin?” and got another finger on the map. Problem solved.

The ticket dispensing machines offered English as an option, so set with my two-trip pass, I entered the bowels of Moscow. As in Prague, the subway stations highlight some of the best and worst of the former Soviet bloc.

Each station features tall ceilings, ornate decorations, granite walls and other luxurious elements, as if they wanted the station to be featured in a special mass transit issue of “Architectural Digest.” And yet at the same time, the lights, housings for cleaning equipment, small security sheds and other elements were devoid of any style, grace or design. Yellow fluorescent lights, exposed conduits, sheet-metal sheds — all bespoke of a “fuck it” mentality that strikes me as coming out of the latter half of the Soviet period.

Once the subway trains arrived, I realized I had made a fatal flaw in my quizzing of my map companion. Although I knew which station I needed to go to, I had no idea which train would take me there. As trains on both tracks arrived simultaneously, I figured I had a 50-50 chance to pick the right one. So I turned left and hopped on board.

Naturally, it was the wrong train.

Don’t Be (Red) Square

When I finally got turned around and made my way to the Red Square station, I stepped out into the warm damp air and looked around. All around me where stalls of trinket vendors hawking everything from fur hats to decks of cards to nesting dolls and more.

I couldn’t see any buildings that shouted “Red Square” to me, so I began wandering about. As I walked, I saw someone dressed as Shrek, a giant Spongebob Squarepants and plenty of hot dog vendors. Then, almost by accident, I looked to my left and saw through an archway the unforgettable St. Basil’s Cathedral.

St. Basil's Cathedral
St. Basil's Cathedral

Walking through the Kremlin’s gates, I found myself remembering countless spy movies shot at this location. The looming brick buildings, the beautiful twisting domes, the Lenin Mausoleum — it looked at once familiar and utterly foreign.

I could imagine military parades and freezing winter nights on this spot, but as I walked about, it was full of people — and about a dozen wedding parties with brides in flowing white gowns and grooms in shiny gray suits — milling about under a warm overcast sky.

Once again I was taken aback at the strange combination of Soviet and western icons. To the right was Lenin’s tomb. To the left, cafes and luxury stores, including a Hermes shop.

After about two hours of wandering and enjoying the Kremlin’s beauty, I bought a few souvenirs and headed back to the airport. Tired, sweaty, and hungry, it was time to try to get some rest before taking the next leg of my flight.

En Route to Russia

There’s nothing like a trip to the other side of the planet to get me to update my blog. This time, I’m headed to Vladivostok, the one-time home to the USSR‘s Pacific Fleet. (Actually, I’m already here, but am behind on posting, so…)

Anyway, I’m here to do a week of teaching (followed by a few more days in nearby Khabarovsk). I’m teaching journalism students in both cities, as well as meeting with some local journalists. The purpose is to provide some insights into American journalism and what’s happening online. Ironically, many Americans are wondering the same thing!

Heading East… Far East

I left Friday evening and my journey took me the “long way” to Vladivostok. Instead of flying west, I headed east, landing first in Moscow. Consistent with my findings as I’ve traveled abroad in recent years, all of the signs were in both the local language and English. Although this is certainly useful, I can’t help but feel a twinge of embarrassment. For one, the proliferation of English signage suggests both a culture creep and an expectation of catering that feels a little, well, obnoxious. Second, I know how few signs in America offer anything other than English. It seems to be a double standard that would do little to increase American likability.

That said, I was grateful for the signs, especially in Moscow airport when I spotted one that directed everybody — except those from Kazakhstan — to the immigration agents. The Kazakhs were redirected down a set of stairs to Lord only knows where. Those poor people get no respect.

Anyway, I’m keeping my posts short on this trip. My goal is to post a few short bits a few times a day. More to come.