September 30, 2008
Irkutsk to Ulaan Batur
Somehow I managed to sneak early onto the train to Ulaan Batur. An announcement was made and there was a rush from the station to the platform. I followed. It was an announcement for a different train, but my train was just opposite the platform. The carriage attendant let me on but then shut the door behind me so I couldn't get off.
My cabin is empty save for myself. The family in the cabin beside mine takes flash photos of each other. A couple stands outside waving. There is a grinding noise. Then another, as if the train is slow to wake. The train lets out a sigh. Somewhere a whistle blows. And another. A train is arriving. Music plays, but I'm not sure from where. The train passes, unseen on another track. The music is rousing. Just as suddenly it stops. People settles. The train sighs. Moves, almost imperceptibly, stops. And then, 15 minutes late, we are off. I have grown too used to Russian punctuality. We travel south along the river, Irkutsk passes as a string of lights. We gain speed, and once again, I find my excitement for trains.
My last day in Irkutsk, I got off to a late start. It was a grey morning and a slight rain fell. I took the tram to the train station to take some photos and then walked back to the city along the bridge. The rain stopped, then started again. I looked for a place to have lunch and ordered blini with red caviar. It was delicious, the best I had had. I said farewell to Russian cuisine with that meal. I would have a pizza snack before boarding the train.
I toured the museums, first the sub-gallery. A Russian woman on the first floor explained that the exhibit was of children's book illustrations. She apologized for not speaking English. I shook my head. I am in Russia, why should she speak English. She kept explaining the exhibit to me in Russian, pointing at the books, guesturing at the illustrations.
In the afternoon I walked to the river and found myself in a small park. A brass band played in a corner and older couples danced. An MC interrupted the music to chat with the audience. Each time the music stopped, the crowd grew thinner. They played "Blue Moon" with an oompah oompah beat. I found myself walking in time.
I took a shower at the hostel and then bid my hostess goodbye. I took the tram back to the train station. It was crowded and a woman yelled at me about my luggage. She shifted her own bag in order to get a better position. She then helped me check my ticket in with the inspector.
With the compartment doors closed and the lights off, I could see stars. The lights from the train illuminated the nearby trees. I listened to John Coltrane. I listened to Astor Piazolla. Lake Baikul passed as a black mass of earth reflecting the city lights that lined the far shore. The big dipper was perfectly framed in the window.
Two German woman joined me. They had come from Listvyanka, taking the Baikul line to catch up with the Ulaan Batur bound train. They went immediately to sleep. The next morning we sat up and watched Siberia go by. The landscape was ever-changing: mountains, grasslands, lakes. At one point a huge factory commanded our attention. I wandered the train. A Russian man smiled at me and pointed at my camera. I took his photo and we shook hands. His grip was like iron. We stopped at smaller and smaller stations. The towns looked more and more desolate.
At the border we waited. Cars were attached and detached. A small market stood just outside the gate selling food and clothes. No one bought clothes. The food was slight but substantial. I ate a meat filled bread bun. I ate a cabbage filled bread bun. I waited.
Four hours later, they gave us customs forms to fill out in duplicate. A woman took our passports. A man came with a dog to sniff our belongings. A woman searched every nook and cranny of our compartment. Our passports were returned. A man collected our customs forms. We waited.
An engine was attached and we lurched across the border. In the 25km distance between Russia and Mongolia, the no-man's land, we stopped and waited. An hour passed. We moved on.
In Mongolia a woman came and took our passports. We filled out customs forms. An official walked by and said hello, then asked if we wanted to change money. A woman came and stamped them. A man asked if we wanted to change money. Our passports were returned. A woman asked if we wanted to change money. Night fell. We waited.
Nine hours since we arrived at the border we were off. It was dark. We prepared our beds and went to sleep.
At the station a man met me. He held up my name. He spoke on his cell phone. We drove to the guest house and he rang the doorbell. He rang it again. He kept ringing it. He dialed a number on his cell phone and then another. He knocked. He rang. He called. A sleepy voice answered. He spoke some words and waited. He rang. He knocked. A voice answered on the other side of the door and we were let in. He said my room would be ready at nine. It was six thirty in the morning. The sun is now starting to rise.
September 27, 2008
In and around Lake Baikul
This morning I was up and out of the house before 8. I took a minibus to the bus station and boarded another van for Litsvyanka and the shores of Lake Baikul. I saw the lake, I tested the water's clarity, I tasted the fish. And then I wasn't sure what else to do.
It was cold when I arrived and a strong wind blew off the water. A Russian couple who had come up on the van with me took pictures of each other on the port. They had taken a number of photos from the back of the van on the way over. We kept running into each other in the few tourist shops that were open. We looked at postcards. We tried to stay warm.
I walked back towards Irkutsk along the water. I found a place to eat, but it was closed until noon. I found a small aquarium and watched the freshwater nerpa seals swim back and forth in their little tank. I looked at various fish that are endemic to the lake, and saw the omul and grayling that have comprised my dinner the past few nights.
I walked back towards Listvyanka. The weather had warmed considerably and the sun was shining. I passed people preparing to dive in the lake. A jogger passed me then paused. I passed her and she came running up behind a short while later. I looked at the lake and towards the snow-capped mountains that formed the horizon. In the morning, clouds had clung to their base but they had cleared.
I took a van back to the city. The day before I had already walked about the greater part of the city. Wedding parties took photos by the river and the eternal flame. The clip clop of high heels resounded throughout the quiet city. Today, the city was livlier. In the square in front of the circus pony and camel rides were offered. Children gathered waiting for the show to start. People sat and enjoyed the weather. I sat and enjoyed the afternoon. Tomorrow night, I'll be back aboard a train, this time a 35-hour journey across the border to Mongolia and Ulan Batur. Tonight, I'm enjoying another night of stasis.
September 26, 2008
Arrival in Irkutsk
I am in Irkutsk, the terminal point of my 77 hour train journey from Moscow. In two nights I will board the trans-Mongolian for the first leg of my trip to Beijing, taking a mere 34 odd hours to make it to Ulan Batur.
The train from Moscow was monotonous. Across from me, three generations of women from a Central Asian family were coming back from Moscow. An uncle completed a fourth generation. The baby had plenty of people to watch over her as they kept coming back towards our berths to play.Twice a day, the carriage attendant would run the vacuum cleaner down the hall. Three or four times a day, a man would come by pushing a cart with drinks and packaged snacks. Two times a day he would come with fried bread stuffed with meat.
One of the few electrical outlets was in our berth and people queued to charge their phones. My compartment mate became the defacto gatekeeper, making sure people kept to their place in line. Now and again a phone would sound off. Even in Siberia, you can receive a text message.
The train moved relentlessly east and the sun set earlier and earlier. Though we passed time zones, the railway clock clung stubbornly to Moscow time. When the sun shone, the windows were a filled with a riot of colors. The Siberian trees had already begun dressing for fall.
I read two novels in quick succession: one, a re-reading of Bulgokov's The Master and Margarita, and the other Pushkin's slim novel in verse Eugene Onegin.
The station stops were infrequent and short. At any that were over ten minutes we all got up to stretch our legs and take in the fresh air. Most of the time, hawkers would be ready with prepared and packaged meals. At one stop I bought eggs. At another, a chicken leg and breast. Tatiana, my compartment-mate, bought a large pink stuffed bunny. She hadwanted something larger, but was afraid it wouldn't fit in her bag. She was returning home from a few weeks vacation in Moscow and St. Petersburg. An only child, her parents were eager to see her again.
The train moved on relentlessly. Towards the end of the second day, time seemed to lose meaning, but as the third day dawned, it felt as though a countdown had begun. Twenty-four hours left. Then twenty-three.
The train started and stopped. Passengers departed. Passengers arrived. But more left than came to take their places. First our upper berths were taken by some central Asian men. Then an Uzbeck man, then no one. The central Asian men kept to their berths, living above our heads. Then, sometime in the night, another man appeared. He didn't talk to anyone.
A 21-year old medical student came to chat. He had just come back from America. He had spent some time working in Colorado, but I didn't catch where. He had spent four days in New York. He listed the places he had been. This was good. That was not.
A large Russian woman took me by the arm. Her name was Ilyana. She said friends! in her thick accent and laughed a smokers laugh. Her friend took our picture. She smiled and held me close. Her strong arms gripped mine.
We arrived. The student had put on a black I heart New York t-shirt. Tatiana and I promosed to write each other and then dasvadanya. Taxi drivers said taxi! taxi! I waited. I looked for the tram but I was tired and my stomach was unsettled. I asked how much. 300 roubles came the reply. Two, I countered. One said no. One said 250. I took the offer.
The hostel is clean and full of people. I was given a bed, some linen. I took a shower and began to feel once again whole. I went out into the city and found a restaurant where I ate omkul, the local fish, baked and served with fried round potato puffs. Outside, the sun warmed my face and body. I took off my scarf. Traded my knit cap for a baseball cap to shield my eyes from the sun. I walked and enjoyed the freedom of walking.
September 22, 2008
Goodbye, Moscow, Goodbye
I got off to a late start this morning. I caught up on a few things, then heated up some Thai curry and rice for an early lunch. I left the house near noon and walked to the post office to mail some postcards.
I took the metro to Sportivnaya and disembarked. I followed the crowd south and then turned west, walking along a busy thoroughfare until I reached the Novodevichy cemetery. A guard at the gate asked me if I wanted a map. I asked if they had any. "Only Russian," he said and laughed. I smiled.
I spent some time wandering the grounds aimlessly. I found Boris Yeltsen's resting place, thanks to the description Teresa gave me: a billowing flag. I exited the cemetery and walked around the complex to the front of the convent. I walked through the gate into the pleasant grounds. A sign on the ticket counter indicated that the main cathedral was closed, so I occupied myself just touring the compound. The buildings were magnificent, the gold domes glinted in the sun. Here and there students with sketchbooks captured the scene in pencils and watercolors.
Leaving the convent, I walked to the other side of a reflecting pond for the view, and then walked along the Moscow River in the direction of home. The traffic noise got to me after a while and I turned up the first street back into the city. I wandered in the direction of home, choosing the roads that seemed most interesting from each intersection. I passed a building in which UK visa applications could be submitted, and past gated compounds with suited guards.
At the elegantly modern Cafe Modus, I inquired about the menu. The maitre d' told me it was in Russian, but he could translate. He said there was a set menu for lunch, including bufala mozerella on tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, bean salad, and duck breast with wild rice, for 540 roubles. I had thought about eating at Moo Moo for a Russian experience, but then decided to stay. It would be the last opportunity to eat at a nice restaurant for at least a few days.
After I sat down, the maitre d' asked if I wanted anything to drink. I asked for water with gas. He checked the menu and told me it would be 240 roubles. I said it was fine and he disappeared to tell the waitress. He soon returned and asked where I was from. I told him New York and he asked which part. I told him and asked if he had been. He had. His father had had a contract with the UN and they spent 8 years in the city. They returned to Moscow when the contract expired. The waitress appeared with my appetizer and A disappeared.
I ate and wrote in my journal and thought about the train ride to come, curious about the platzkartny service, and wondering how I should repack my bags. The sun shone; the afternoon wore on.
(Note: Tonight I head to Irkutsk on the train. I won't arrive until the 26th and won't have internet service until then so updates are suspended at least until that date.)
September 21, 2008
A day in the sun
Tomorrow night I board the 77 hour train to Irkutsk. Tonight, I'm at home, listening to Carla Bruni and Stina Nordenstam, and enjoying the stasis.
This morning I slept late. Teresa went to work and I had a leisurely torpedo melon breakfast before updating my journal. We met near her office and had shwarma for lunch before taking a trolleybus to a stop near the Garage for Contemporary Culture, opened by Daria Zhukova in the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage.
Disembarking on the ring road, we wandered the neighborhood around the Garage looking for it, passing an armament museum and a small Japanese noodle shop. We soon found the garage, nestled between two Jewish centers, and marveled at the size and space.
Inside, a gallery had been erected in the rear of the building. The shade of lighting had been chosen for each room to complement the paintings; it left slightly hazy impressions of the rooms themselves. Winding our way through the paintings, we emerged into the garage proper, which showed how enormous the space is, and also demonstrated the possibilities for the future.
We looked through the bookstore and used the well-designed facilities before leaving. We wandered the quiet, elegant streets of the neighborhood and found our way back to the Japanese noodle shop. It was still crowded; two of the tables had not yet cleared from when we had first seen the place.
We ordered and found a seat in the corner by the windows. We ate our udon soups next to a table of Russians, arguing about this and that. I remarked to Teresa how surprising it was to be eating udon in a Japanese restaurant next to Russians, and she said, "This is Russia." I smiled and sipped my soup.
Walking back to the ring road, we passed a small bakery cafe with outdoor benches and ordered coffee and mousse. The day was the warmest I had experienced in Moscow, and the skies were clear. A group of goth kids walked past, and then walked past again. Teresa remarked that it was the day I experienced Moscow like any other Muscovite.
On the way home, we stopped in a supermarket for sundries. We bought some caviar and black bread and ate that along with cheese and eggplant spread for dinner. For dessert we had some torpedo melon. Teresa lent me a copy of The Master and Margarita and I began to re-read it, thinking about how I might pack for the train.
Moscow (days and) nights
I met Teresa back at her apartment. She was still in bed. I had just come from the train station from St. Petersburg. I was tired, but didn't want to risk napping for fear of falling asleep for a good portion of the morning. I updated my journal.
Soon, Teresa was out of bed. I showered and we made for the train station. We took an electric commuter train to Segiev Posad. Along the route, people would ply the aisles, selling this and that. They gave their spiels in matter-of-fact voices. I wondered to Teresa what would happen if one of them actually attempted to be entertaining. One fumbled with his sell, and I saw him reading off the back of his product.
The town of Sergiev Posad was small and somewhat unkempt. The monestary gounds were beautiful and peaceful. We wandered around the back of the complex before winding our way back towards the churches. Some were had been converted to stores selling iconography, souvenirs, and watches. In the main church building, a service was taking a place. A man incanted the words while a chorus of women answered. In the dim cavernous space, their voices echoed beautifully. We had been given CDs when we paid our admission fees and I mentioned to Teresa that I hoped that some women's voices had been captured upon it.
Heading back towards the entrance, we passed a gazebo under which a cross spouted water from either end of its arms. People captured the holy water in plastic containers. Some held plastic flasks with the monestary and church embossed on the sides. Nearby, a small chapel contained another cross and a priest sold the plastic flasks. We bought some and proceeded to collect our own water.
We ate in a hotel restaurant not far from the complex. The main dining room was closed for a private function and we were seated in a small room on another side of the building. We ordered a tasty salad, salmon bilini, and a garlic toast that's cut into cubes and deep fried like croutons.
Back in Moscow, we made plans to have dinner at a Georgian restaurant near Teresa's house. Five of us arrived to a group of singers entertaining the restaurant to taped music (Mattias was under the impression they were lip syncing some of the opera tunes). We ordered a number of Georgian specialties including a meat tower. When it arrived, they dimmed the lights and appeared with a metal tray, skewers sticking straight out of it, with a pineapple lantern at the center. The food was delicious. As the music continued, some of the customers danced, but Teresa lamented the lack of Georgian dancing.
After dinner we headed off to a bar near Chistoprudni. Coming out of the metro, the square in front was full of drunken men. Bottles shattered as they were dropped or thrown. Glass littered the street. We walked along the tree-lined median to one of the ponds for which the area is named, then turned down a side street. The bar was located in the courtyard of an office complex. A door lead into a basement. We paid our cover charge, walked past a small bookstore, and then into a cramped space crowded with students.
A band was playing on a small stage. Two girls sang and screamed into a microphone. A young crowd thrashed about. We squeezed to the bar and ordered drinks. The set ended, and people pushed to get out. We found space at a table and sat down.
The next band was older. They played riffs influenced by 60s surf music, but never seemed to play a song. They'd start strong, go for a while, and then stop, without ever singing a note. We sat and listened for a while. A man who looked like a thinner Harry Knowles danced on a chair.
We left the bar and made our way back towards Smolenskaya, stopping off at another bar, Apartment 44. There, the cast of characters looked as if they could have stepped out of a Fellini film (or a Tom Waits song). A woman wore a sailor's cap, looking for people to kiss her. A strong man in a tight shirt and what seemed at times to be silk pants wandered in and out of the room. We had just missed the live music, and a man soon appeared to collect his accordion.
The room was lined with books, and had the air of a cafe. We ordered drinks and sat and talked. H said it smelled like Europe.
The next morning we got up late. We ate breakfast and lunch at home in quick succession and then took a trolleybus to Park Kulture. We walked over the bridge and Teresa showed me the entrance to the museum in the Megaphone building. We walked through the sculpture park and towards the Red October chocolate factory. We bought an assortment of chocolates at the company store and then wandered around looking for the Gagosian gallery, practically circumambulating the islet before finding it (stumbling along a photoshoot of sorts along the way).
The gallery space was beautiful. Housed inside the old chocolate factory, the building itself was gorgeous, and much of the original tiles and exterior walls had been left untouched. The views of the city were fantastic. We took some pictures and were yelled at. Around us, Russians were taking photos with impunity. We couldn't figure out why we were being singled out.
Leaving the museum, we walked towards the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer and found a small bread shop cafe behind a Chinese restaurant noted as one of the most expensive restaurants in Moscow. The interior was beautifully designed. We sat for tea and desserts and watched the clientele come and go. Teresa said it was like being on the Upper East Side. I had to concur.
We bought a loaf of bread and made our way back home. We bought torpedo melon and caviar and ate a light snack before dinner.
We met up with friends at nine pm, taking the metro to the last stop on the red line. Teresa had mentioned a great Indian restaurant inside the campus of the Friendship University. She said it would also be a great way to see an area more akin to where most Muscovites would live. We ended up walking alongside a highway leading out of the city before we reached the dorms. We walked along the dorms for a while before entering through a set of gates. We walked into the university and then were lost. We asked around a bit, but it was some doing before we found the small doorway that lead into the basement restaurant.
Bollywood films played on tv screens and the restaurant was crowded with Indians. We found a table in a side room and sat down. We ordered as a scene from Dil Se queued up on screen.
The food was delicious. It and the Georigan restaurant had been two of the best meals I have had here. We emptied the dishes and sopped up the last bit of sauce with our nan. We had decided to check out a club called Ikat afterwards, and took cars to the metro station. We transferred to the ring line and emerged at a train station. We wandered through the train station trying to figure out how to get behind it before asking directions. We left the station by one exit and entered it through another and walked along another underground passage before finding our way.
The club had beautiful wallpaper. We paid our cover, checked our clothes and went to the bar. A DJ was playing along one side. The seats were full, but no one was dancing. We ordered drinks at the bar and sat in another room along the back. H found us a table in the front and we moved towards the DJ. The music became louder and people started to dance. When the headliner came out, more danced, facing the music and the DJ.
As we left we checked out the free bar, which was also nicely laid out, with 60s influenced wallpaper. Above the room we were in was another space where bands played, but it was closed for the night.
We took a car back to house, zooming our way along the ring road. H rang asking us if we wanted to join them at a Cuban restaurant for a nightcap but we declined. Moscow flew past the windows.
September 19, 2008
Sleepless to St. Petersburg
I didn't sleep well on the overnight train to St. Petersburg. I was too excited to be back in a berth on a sleeper car.
The train left on time. I shared the four person kupe with two older Russian men and a younger Russian girl who told me she was a photojournalist. She had just come from shooting a story in the south. She said it was running in this week's Russian Newsweek but she hadn't had a chance to buy it (later her friend would call and tell her they altered her captions, much to her obvious displeasure).
I asked her if she went to school for photojournalism and she said no. There were no schools in Russia for that. Instead she had obtained a regular journalism degree and then asked people and taught herself to shoot. She had been shooting for three years, first for an agency and now freelance.
I mentioned to her I had hoped to ride third class platskartny to St Petersburg. She professed a preference for the same, but told me that they were few and far between on the route between Moscow and Piter. Since there was such demand, they removed the platskartny service to make more money on the higher end cars.
When we reached the city, I mentioned that I had hoped that Piter would be warmer than Moscow. She looked at me and then said, "Hm. Interesting." Her father was meeting her on the platform and we exchanged information and bid each other adieu.
I dropped my bags at the hostel and took the metro to the center of the city. I walked to the Hermitage from there, crossing canals and admiring the very European suroundings. From the metro stop, I could see the arms of Kazan Cathedral stretching out towards me. Looking down a canal, I could see the Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood, looking very much like St. Basil's in Red Square.
I arrived before the museum opened and ended up waiting in the cold. The line behind me began to stretch across the plaza. When the gates opened there was a mad dash to the ticket counters.
I spent most of the day there. It would take dozens of visits to truly se the museum and so I contented myself with merely experiencing it. The rooms in which the galleries were located were opulent and immense, at times overshadowing the art contained therein. Upon entering I was caught up in the waves of tour groups speaking a melange of languages. I let myself be pulled in their wake, finding myself lost in the galleries.
An hour later, I stopped for a snack and, with map in hand, finally began to make sense of the museum. I charted a path that I determined to follow only as long as the glimpse of another gallery didn't tempt me from it.
Leaving the museum, I walked to the Mariinsky theater in hopes of seeing a ballet. I passed it before re-discovering it, originally mistaking it for a different theater. The box office attendant told me the season wouldn't start until the 24th. I was out of luck.
I ate a late lunch/early dinner at the Idiot restaurant, partially because I seem to smile like one in this country, and partially because it was vegetarian. The decor was on the cozy side of stuffy and I was just happy to sit in a warm room and let my legs rest. I ordered trout stuffed with vegetables with a side of boiled potatoes and set about writing postcards and updating my jounal.
This morning I was up at 8:#0 after a cold night's sleep. The electric heater wouldn't start, and the radiator offered meager assistance. I stole a blanket from an empty bed, but couldn't stretch out. The blankets left my feet hanging out.
I showered and shaved and left my bags in left luggage. I took the metro back to Nevsky station and toured the much more manageable Russian Museum before peeking into the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. From there I walked across the river to the Peter & Paul fortress, partially for the views back towards St. Petersburg and partially to seek out the final resting place of the former tsars.
I took the metro back to Nevsky. In the station, an officer tapped me on the shoulder and after determining what language I spoke showed me a laminated piece of paper written in at least six languages. I was guilty of taking a photo in the metro without a proper license and was to pay a fine of 100 roubles. We sat down on a bench as he wrote out the ticket. Instead of feeling chided, I was excited to add another piece of Russian ephemera to my collection.
I ate dinner at the Zoom cafe, a cool cafe near one of the canals. My smiling waitress didn't understand English and she went to fetch the unsmiling hostess to take my order. Though tempted by a seafood risotto, I remembered D's original order from a few days ago and ordered pork medallions with a mushroom cream sauce with a side of vegetable fried rice. It was tasty.
The place soon filled up and so I paid my check and got up to leave. I was tired and went to take the metro back to my hostel but the station was closed. A line of people waited outside. I decided to walk.
En route, I stoppd to buy cookies. Remembering the caviar Teresa bought, I was under the impression the cookies were being sold by the 100 gram. I asked for 50 roubles worth. She started filling up a bag and I had to ask her to stop. It wasn't until later I realized they were probably being sold by the kilogram.
In three more hours I'm taking the overnight train back to Moscow. In three days I'm off to Irkutsk, third class. The train takes three days and nine hours. I think.
September 16, 2008
A picture postcard walking tour of Moscow
In Moscow, partly sunny means cloudy. Last night I was buoyed by the weather forecast, calling for sun amongst the clouds, and a daytime high of 55 degrees F. This morning dawned grey, but I held out hope for the afternoon to no avail.
Today I hobbled around the city trying my best to act the role of a tourist (last night I had tied my shoes too tightly and managed to bruise my heel or something). In the morning, I went to the Kremlin. The woman behind the counter refused to sell me tickets to the Armory. "Come back 11:50," she said. It was around 10:30. I thanked her, took my ticket, and entered the complex. I followed various tour groups around as we walked amongst the cathedrals. Inside, they were stunning. Almost every surface was painted. As I looked at the arches and construction, my mind wandered to the structures carved out of the rock in Lalibella, Ethiopia. I was struck more by the similarities than the differences.
Outside, I braved the cold and took photos of the golden domes. The skies refused to clear, but the gold still gleamed in the diffuse light.
On my way out I passed the line for the armory. It was 11:50, but it would have taken too much time to buy tickets and come back. I thought about trying to sneak in with a tour group, but decided that had I waited in the cold and been turned away, the effort would not have been worth the disappointment. I went on my way.
Last night, Teresa took me to a hidden underground bar/restaurant. A friend of hers was joining us and she tried to give her directions over the phone. In the end she gave up. We agreed to meet at a Starbucks on Arbat street.
D was sitting in the window when we arrived. We continued down Arbat to the end of the road and then walked up another street to the left. We doubled back through what appeared to be a residential area. Teresa led us through a gate that lead to another residential building. She walked up to a metal door that seemed to open up to a tool shed. Instead, it revealed a stairwell. Her friend told us she would never have been able to find the place.
Inside, caverns connected a few disparate rooms. We sat in a long brick room with a barrel vaulted ceiling. It reminded me of a place I had gone with Sophia in Budapest. That night, the evening went from dinner to dancing. On the weekends, I could see how the restaurant we were in could turn into the same.
D ordered for me. Teresa told her to order me traditional Russian food. She ordered a herring salad and breaded pork medallions with mashed potatoes. We ordered drinks. Soon, the waitress reappeared. They were out of herring. D substituted borscht. The waitress went to update our order. Shortly, she returned. They were out of pork. D substituted beef. And then she had an idea. She had been to a Russian restaurant that felt as if it had never left the 80s. She said the food was fantastic. At night, it turned into a club and you needed membership, but she said we should go. I would have real Russian food then. We set a date for Saturday night.
When the check came I looked at the money on the table and asked D where some of the monuments were. Teresa said she had never looked at the money before. D said that she used to collect coins when she was travelling for tennis.
Outside the restaurant, we parted ways. Teresa had suggested we walk by Red Square at night. D went home. I asked Teresa if D played tennis professionally. She said she thought she was ranked number one as a junior in Ukraine.
We walked past the conservatory and Teresa pointed out a coffee shop with an outdoor terrace. She said that during the summer the terrace was always packed. She said during concert nights you could hear the music from the sidewalk. I could imagine the warm summer nights and the notes echoing off the buildings around us. Instead, the streets were slick with a passing shower, and the temperatures hovered not ten degrees above freezing.
We talked about Russian names, the formal and the familiar. Teresa told me that each name had it's own familiar form and she rattled off a few for me. She noted that D had introduced herself using her formal name. She said only really friendly people introduced themselves with their familiar name. I asked her what my familiar name was and she told me. I said I was going to start introducing myself with that form of my name.
We walked towards the Kremlin and then into the Square. St. Basil's was lit up along with every other building lining the square. The effect was just this side of Disney. People scattered about the square knelt to take photos. Teresa had me leap for some of her own.
From the square we walked along the water. Teresa pointed out the Pushkin museum of art, and noted with some surprise that the main road had been blocked off. Groups of people were walking down the sidewalk, but she couldn't figure what was going on.
We walked to the Church of Christ the Redeemer and then crossed a beautiful pedestrian bridge to a small islet which once housed a chocolate factory. The buildings still remain; tomorrow Gagosian will open an art show there. I hope to be able to see the exhibit before i go.
On the other side of the islet, Teresa pointed out a popular club called Heaven housed in what appeared to be an outdoor gym. It was constructed like the white rounded tents I associate with indoor tennis courts. We crossed another bridge and found ourselves on the other side of the river. We walked towards the Megaphone building, passing a restaurant designed by Philippe Starck and the large statue of Peter the Great. Passing the Megaphone building, Teresa said her favorite museum was housed therein. She also pointed to some metal racks and said that artists sold their work there. She made me promise to go.
At the main road, we flagged down a passing car. He took us the long way home, but showed us places neither of us had ever seen. I told Teresa she had gotten her money's worth.
Leaving the Kremlin, I followed the same path we took last night. This time I stopped in the Pushkin museum and the Church of Christ the Redeemer. The museum was small but well stocked with a variety of art from various periods. I was impressed with its breadth. The church was impressive for its size and decoration. I stood within its vaulted halls and reveled in its glory.
Leaving the church, I crossed the bridge and looked for where I might buy chocolates down below. I couldn't see anyone entering any of the structures and so walked on, past Bon, and past the statue of Peter the Great. In front of the Megaphone building, artists had hung their work. By the time I reached the entrance to the building I was tired.
I bought a ticket and went in. When I tried to hand the ticket to a guard, he yelled at me to go to registration. I went and found someone who spoke English to help me fill it out. He gave me a card in return.
It turned out that the building had been given over to two expos: one of companies manufacturing and selling various goods, and the other of companies selling fake Christmas trees and ornaments. I asked about the museum and was told that almost all of the space was given to the expo. I was told there was some gallery space but no one seemed able to describe where it was. I walked around a bit and left.
When I reached the main road, I decided to take a trolleybus home. I waited for the next one to arrive and saw Smolenskyaya as one of the stops written on the side. I asked the driver anyway. He didn't understand me but the woman in front of me did and said, "Da." I boarded the bus.
Occasionally the lines that connected to the power grid above would drop off and the electric motor would stall. I'm not sure if it was always an accident or intentional so he could allow other buses to run ahead of him, or if he could change lines. At my stop I alighted. I hadn't eaten anything save for small bread buns and so I went to Moo Moo for a late lunch. I ordered salmon and vegetables. I hadn't realized how starved for vegetables I had been but I ate them first, scooping them up quickly into my mouth.
Sated, I walked home. I'm tired. I'm thinking of taking a nap. At 11pm, I board the overnight train to St. Petersburg, a warmup trip before the trans-Mongolian.
September 15, 2008
Waiting and walking, Moscow day 3
If there was an easy way to accomplish something, today, I would choose not to do it. This morning I got out of bed just as Teresa was leaving for work. I spent my time getting ready. I had already decided I would spend the day running errands, and I wasn't necessarily eager to start. It would also be my first day alone, wandering through Moscow without supervision.
I walked to the metro. The skies were grey, with occasional drizzle a light sprinkle that would now and again grace my face. I was off to the offices of the Russia National group to register my visa. Teresa had pointed it out on the map and offered metro directions. The transfers went without a hitch and soon I was emerging onto the double lane boulevard of Chistroprudni. A beautiful tree-lined park ran down the median.
I found the building fairly easily, and walked around to the back to the entrance. A guard led me up a flight of stairs and pointed the way to the office. Paintings lined the walls of the interior courtyard. I waited my turn and then sat in front of the agent. She xeroxed my visa and departure card and told me my registration would be ready Wednesday. I told her I would be in St. Petersburg on Wednesday. I said I could pick it up on the weekend, but then they were closed. On Monday I was to set off for Irkutsk.
She looked at me and counted the dates. She said I should be ok without registration as I was changing locations so often and quickly. I'd barely be anywhere longer than three days. I thanked her and left the building. I walked back to the metro then northeast from there in the direction of Leningradskij to pick up my ticket to Irkutsk and also to purchase a ticket to St. Petersburg. Along the way, I stopped and had a schwarma for a quick snack.
At the train station, I found the kiosk where I had to pick up my trans-Siberian train ticket. My travel agent and sent me a letter in Russian with a photo of the kiosk and a map. My trans-Siberian ticket in hand, I surveyed the station. I saw boards written in Cyrillic with train numbers listed, headed for St. Petersburg. I could make out what some of the columns meant but not others. I saw a ticket window listing tickets from Moscow to St. Petersburg and stood in line. Five minutes later, I was talking to the attendant.
I had written down the dates and times on a piece of paper and handed them to her. She asked for my passport. She jabbed at her computer keyboard slipped a ticket into the printer. She punched some numbers into a calculator and held them up for me to see. The tickets were over 4500 roubles. I balked. I asked if she had platzkartny (3rd class) tickets. She shook her head. I asked if she had anything cheaper. She yelled something in Russian. She flicked her wrist and with a wave of her hand banished me.
Teresa had told me I'd be yelled at. She had also told me that I would be waiting for a long time in lines. The first had occurred but not the second. It was to be my only experience buying a ticket in Russia, and so I determined to wait in line and see if I could find another window selling cheaper seats (I thought that perhaps the dedicated window was selling tickets for special trains).
I walked to another window with no line. The woman pointed at a Cyrillic laser-printed sign and crossed her hands before her. The woman in the next window did the same. I stood in a longer line, almost reaching the window before the attendant started sending people away. I then realized the signs indicated when people would be going on break. I found a window where the attendant was soon to return. I was third in line. I waited. A group of three teenage boys was in front of me. When they didn't step up to the window quickly, the attendant yelled at them.
When it was my turn, I handed the dates and times to the attendant. She held up a calculator with the price. It was the same as before, but had done the conversion and realized that the price was under $200US for the round trip. It was more than I had been lead to believe from the guidebook, but about what Teresa had quoted in passing when she mentioned going there. I handed her the money without complaint. She printed the tickets and held them up for me to inspect. She read them off in Russian, and I nodded. She pushed them through the slot and I thanked her. She said your welcome. She barely raised her voice above the din around us.
Leaving the train station, I stopped to take some photos and to buy a bottle of water. I stepped up to a small kiosk. I pointed to a bottle of water. The woman smiled and with her hands asked me what size. I chose a small. She typed the price into a calculator and held it close to my face for me to read. I handed her the money and she pushed a button. I half expected someone to emerge from an elevator with my bottle in hand. Instead, she laughed and pointed to a cooler located beside the kiosk. I understood and went to open the door. It was stuck. I pulled harder. She kept her finger on the button and smiled. I pantomimed using all my effort and the door opened. I pulled out a bottle and held it up for her inspection. She laughed and nodded and I went my way.
I took the train to Red Square. Had I the time I would have toured the Kremlin, but instead I walked through the old quarter of Moscow, following a walking tour outlined in the guidebook. The skies remained grey and a light sprinkle would flick water now and again into my face. Upon reaching the Saints Cathedral on the Kulishka, a large square split by boulevards, I decided to walk back to Teresa's apartment.
I turned down one road and walked towards the river. Upon reaching Red Square, I walked upon the Moskvoretsky bridge to get a better view and to see the views from the bridge. Realizing the other side had better views, I crossed the bridge and ducked under it to walk back from the other side.
Crossing Red Square, I looked at the map. I had overshot the street I needed to walk back to the apartment. I ended up circumambulating the Kremlin. Then, I had to walk halfway back around after ending up on a block in the middle of two boulevards that didn't have any underground passages connecting it to the other side. At one point, I stood beside a policeman who seemed as if he were about to dash across; I was hoping to cross as his shadow.
I walked back along Arbat, the pedestrian street. A few people had set up canvases with which to sketch passersby willing to part with a few roubles. A drunk man accosted couples, begging for money. I walked into a souvenir shop and bought some post cards.
Back at the apartment, I sliced some bread and spread caviar atop it. I finished my snack with some sliced torpedo melon. It was good to get off my feet and let my legs rest. It almost makes me wish I were getting on the trans-Siberian this evening so that I might sit and lay down and read for the next three days . . .
A Moscow Sunday
Sometime between Saturday and Sunday a plane went down east of Moscow. Sunday morning, one of Teresa's friends called. She said a colleague of theirs might have been on the flight. The travel agent had called her to inform her. I came out of the shower to find Teresa reading the news. A passenger list had yet to be posted. Her colleague's nationality wasn't listed among those in the crash.
The night before, another friend had invited us to her house for dinner. We arrived to find a spacious apartment overlooking the Moscow River. Gorky Park stretched up from the opposite bank. Other people arrived. Her friend had prepared burritos. She poured beer into our glasses and invited us to assemble our own, which she'd then toast in the oven. We drank and ate and got to know each other.
Soon, D began excitedly talking about karoke. Apparently our host had a singing game, and D was eager to try. Teresa and I looked at each other. Karoke had not been included in the invite.
We gathered around the PS2 and our host put a DVD into the console. D became suddenly shy about singing into the mike. She offered to dance. Her friend protested when the mike was offered to him, but proceeded to demolish all of our scores (the next day, H would tell us that he was a professional singer; he had sang in a band covering Russian ballads. We all suspected something was going on when he seemed to know all the words to the English power ballads featured in the game).
Just after midnight, we decided to go home. I had almost fallen asleep on the couch. It was my first night in Moscow, and I had barely slept on the plane. We thanked our host and took our leave.
Teresa and I walked H home. We walked along the river, up to The Church of Christ the Redeemer (on a site which once housed the world's largest swimming pool) and then back to Teresa's apartment along the pedestrian mall of Arbat. I had remarked how the city reminded me at times of Paris, and a lot of Budapest. Arbat reminded me a similar pedestrian street in Istanbul. Teresa remembered the name of the area, but not of the street itself.
The next morning, took the metro to Izmaylovo, a market in the north-eastern part of the city. We paid our way into the souvenir market and walked past carts filled with tchotckes and posters. Teresa lead me to the side of the market where men grilled meats on large skewers. One offered me a taste. It was delicious. I thought about buying a skewer but it was still early and we were to meet her friends for lunch in a few hours.
Past the souvenir stalls we came upon the antiques market. Teresa bought a history of the metro and a set of knives. She had bought forks and spoons in the market and now her place setting was complete. Later, H would look at the date stamped on the knives. 1947, she would note. Two years earlier and she wouldn't have been able to take them out of the country.
We left the market and walked around to the back through a vegetable and meat market. A little further on, Teresa bought some Tajik flatbread from a small stall. It was still warm and we devoured it. She lead me through a stadium and then into the immigrant market, which sold all sorts of clothes. The market was packed, and we had to step quikcly not to be run over by workers pulling metal trolleys. People pushed their way past, scurrying from one place to another through the narrow aisles.
Teresa pointed me to a non-descript entrance. We walked up a narrow flight of stairs lined with boxes and emerged into a simple Chinese restaurant. We found a seat, and soon her friends arrived. One confirmed the reports from the morning, and Teresa excused herself from the table. Returning, they talked about their colleague, and what they should do.
Lunch was comprised of a fish soup doused in chilis, mapo tofu, and hollow vegetables, with a spring mellon and pork soup. The food was delicious, but I found it difficult to eat. I was still adjusting to the time difference and the little sleep I had received in the past few days. I found myself drifting while everyone else ate.
After lunch we pushed back through the market towards the metro. At the gates to the souvenir market, a man tamed bears in a small fenced-off area. I noted how sad it seemed and Teresa concurred. At the metro, old women help up wares they were selling. We all descended into the marbled station.
Teresa and I disembarked near Red Square. We walked to the Bolshoi to see about obtaining opera tickets for the evening. The box office was closed, but scalpers offered us tickets for 1000 roubles (about $40US). We told them we'd think about it. We walked to Red Square and stood around a plaque marking the center of Moscow. People stood on the plaque and tossed coins behind them. A group of older women stood behind them to pick up the coins as they chimed to the ground; occasionally they'd snatch them from the air.
We walked to St. Basil's cathedral, where a group of parishoners sang as they circumambulated the church. Inside, it was a series of small chapels connected by winding corridors. The chapels were beautifull decorated and painted, gilded with gold. A group of men sang in one of the chapels as we wound our way around and through the multiple connected buildings.
Back on the square we saw a wedding couple, and followed them to take some photos. Oddly, they didn't seem to have a photographer of their own in tow. We decided to pause for a moment and ducked into the department store than lined one side of the square, opposite the Kremlin. We had tea. One of Teresa's friends called about the opera tickets. She was at the Bolshoi with her father and said that 1000 roubles was a decent price to pay. We asked her to buy some tickets for us.
We bought caviar and bread and walked back to the metro. Along the way, Teresa pointed out a small shop where she had her first meal in Russia. I said we should go eat there. We ordered a plate of meat dumplings to which Teresa added a small container of sour cream. We stood at a table and she explained that Russians ate everything with sour cream. She said she knew she had been here too long when she found herself putting it into her soup.
The dumplings were delicious. I asked her the name of the store, and she said it was "sandwiches." She said that in the past stores were all named for what they carried. One would be called "milk," another "meat."
Back at the apartment, we had the caviar over onion bread. Again, it was delicious. We sampled just a bit and then it was time to go. We were running late and so Teresa suggested we take a car. She said that any car was a taxi, you just had to bargain a fare. People who wanted to make some extra money or were bored would pick people up. I asked her the nicest car that had stopped for her. She said a BMW; the driver didn't even charge them.
We stood on the side of the street in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and soon a car stopped for us. He didn't know where we were going; neither did a second car. A third car stopped and soon cars lined up behind his. This one knew our destination and we hopped in.
At the Bolshoi, we checked our coats and received a set of opera glasses. The main theater had been under renovation for the past three years; our performance of Boris Gudonov was in a smaller, more intimate theater. We sat on chairs with light blue cushions. Just before the performance was to begin, students were allowed in to fill the seats. The music was and setting was delightful, but I was feeling the affects of lack of sleep and kept nodding off. The subtitles were projected on a TV screen to the side of the stage, but it was just far enough away to make it a strain to try to read them.
We took the metro back from the theater, getting off one stop past Teresa's stop to walk back across the river on a pedestrian bridge. From the center of the river, she pointed out four of the seven sisters, a group of buildings known throughout the city. Moscow University, lit up in the distance, looked spectacular, and the day of Russian experiences seemed perfectly capped.
September 13, 2008
Of course I left too many things to the last minute. Friday morning, I received an email from Teresa. She told me where to meet her. I told her I had bought her MCAT book. She asked me for clarification. She had asked me to bring her a GMAT book. I told her I'd exchange it.
I walked to Barnes and Noble in Tribeca. They had just opened and only one register was staffed. I waited in line. I walked to Old Navy to buy a scarf. Teresa warned me that the weather had turned cold and rainy. They said it was too early in the season and they didn't stock any. I waited for Uniqlo to open. Their scarves were almost fifty dollars. I walked to H+M and bought one for five.
I stopped by a bookstore on Prince Street. I was looking for novels and histories to read on the train. Barnes and Noble didn't have the books I was looking for. Unfortunately, neither did the store I was in. However, they had a shelf of Russian novels. I picked up a novel by Andrei Platonov. On another shelf I found a personal history by Kapuchinski. I brought them both up to the counter.
Back home I finished packing. I thought about whether to bring my heavy coat and decided against it. I cut my hair and took a shower. I donned my shoes. I bid adieu to my roommate, kissing her on both cheeks, shouldered my bag, and decended the stairs.
Moments later, I was back. I had forgotten my watch.
The flight to Frankfurt was uneventful. In the terminal, caught in the purgatory between connecting flights, I contemplated the idea of death. Platonov's lyrical novella "Soul" and my half-awake, half-asleep state made me wonder if death were merely the forgetting of life. Asleep, without dreaming, does one remember what it is to be alive? If one forgot completely, is that not a state like death?
Attendants appeared at the empty counters. "Moscow?" one asked. I nodded. He called me forward. He checked my passport, visa, and tickets. He let me through to the waiting room. I waited.
I slept on the flight to Moscow. We landed on time and taxiied to the terminal. Outside, trees lined the tarmac. The skies were grey.
Passport control was surprisingly quick. I walked into the terminal and looked for Teresa. I didn't see her. I walked back and scanned the crowd a second time, and then walked to the Hertz booth, where we had agreed to meet. I waited a moment and then saw her approach. She asked me how long I had waited and said she was surprised I had emerged so quickly.
We took the train into the city. The suburbs passed, but I didn't see them. We were engrossed in conversation. Once at the terminal, we entered the marbled metro system. The subway cars were the same as those in Budapest. We transferred at Revolution Square. Bronze statues of heroes supported the roof. A tour group wandered the platform. Women sat on benches. Teresa explained to me that people often met in the metro system to avoid waiting in the cold.
We took the train to her stop and walked to her apartment. Teresa bought a torpedo melon from a street stall. At home she cut it open and sectioned it into cubes. She promised me it would be better than any melon I had had in the States. She was right. She put out hummus and olives and hard bread and we sat and ate and talked while tea brewed on the counter. The sun threatened to emerge from the clouds. Outside, the sound of a man shoveling dirt from the street served a rhythmic backdrop to our conversation.
September 7, 2008
The trip is the destination
I've finally finalized plans for my upcoming trip. I leave Friday. I'm still not sure I have everything I need to take with me, but I have my tickets and paperwork in order. I think. I'm still trying to figure out how to register my visa when I get to Moscow.
For those who have been wondering, I'm flying into Moscow and spending a week there. I'm hoping to spend the weekend in St. Petersberg. The week after I arrive, I'm taking the trans-Mongolian to Beijing, stopping Irkutsk (to see Lake Baikul) and Ulan Batur to get a sense of Mongolia (and to break up what would otherwise be a weke on the train). I'll spend a week in Beijing (and the environs) before heading to Shanghai, where I'll spend another week before flying back. I was hoping to circumnavigate the globe, but I'm flying Lufthansa, which flies through Germany each way.
I'm not sure what to expect. As seems to be the case, I didn't fully decide on this trip until about three weeks ago and just bought the guidebook last weekend. I'm hoping I manage make some decent pictures and a few good series out of the trip.
September 1, 2008
Lately I've been on a Bollywood kick. I'm not sure what instigated it. A few weeks ago I walked to Jackson Heights after lunch at Sripraphai and bought a copy of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna on a lark. Yw told me that a woman had recommended it to her. The woman had told her that the film was shot in New York, and by virtue of that fact she should see it. It was good enough for me.
I immediately lent it to Yw, who returned it to me a week later. She told me not to expect much from the film, but told me that the movie was really beautifully shot. She told me they used all the most beautiful locations in the city. Later that weekend, with some time on my hands, I put the disc into my dvd player and prepared to laugh and cry for almost three hours.
True to Yw's assessment, the film was not great (though its treatment of extra-maritial affairs was surprising for a Bollywood film). Still, there was at least one song that captured my ear, and it didn't hurt that Rani Mukherjee (one of my favorite actresses at the moment) was a lead. I found the soundtrack and soon found myself listening to "Mitwa" on repeat.
I immediately began to rearrange my Netflix queue. While some of the Bollywood films I was hoping to see had yet to be acquired, I moved a few other films to the top and received a couple on Friday. That night, I watched Omkara, a reworking of Shakespeare's Othello. While the film was well done (Saif Ali Khan was especially affecting in the role of Iago), and the soundtrack was one of the better I had heard, it was a heavy film. I was hoping for something more joyful for my next film.
I found it with Om Shanti Om. A surprisingly meta flim (though it almost seems like it doesn't realize that it is), the film is a celebration of Bollywood even as it sends it up (with a number of homages Gene Kelly films). The songs and dance sequences are spectacular, all with the appearance of technicolor splendor. I found myself watching the songs sequences over and over, especially one introduced by Rani Mukherjee which boasts some 30 cameos by Bollywood stars past and present.
Sunday, Yw invited me to an Indian event in New Jersey. She was uncertain what it was but thought it would be fun. An Indian co-worker of hers had invited her and she invited me. I told her I was game, and we found ourselves climbing aboard Sonal's minivan at Journal Square. Soon, we were at an expo center in Seacaucus. As we entered, Saif Ali Khan (the co-star of Omkara and Kareena Kapoor took the stage. They gamely answered obvious questions and promised to come back later. The hostess said that they'd be signing autographs later, though we heard her apologize for the security measures and the lack of access later that afternoon.
The center was surprisingly devoid of interesting stalls. At one, I bought a deluxe copy of Om Shanti Om, and soon it was time for lunch. One of the food stalls boasted a dish from Gujarat, which was amazing. Sonal said that the restaurant was famous for it. I said I didn't think I had ever seen it on a menu, and her friend said that was because most of the restaurants in New York were Punjabi. I decided to search out more restaurants.
After lunch we wandered around a bit, and then the hostess appeared. She said there'd be a fashion show soon. We crowded around the stage and waited and soon a slow processional of wedding attire appeared. The clothes were ok; Sonal complained that they hadn't even been steamed, but it was fun to watch the models make they way down the stage, though there seemed little rhyme or reason to the casting.
After the show, singers appeared, one of which sang a song from Omkara, noting that Saif Ali Khan "was in the house." A group of children danced, and then other singers appeared with dancers who seemed ill-rehearsed. One mouthed the words to each song as he emoted more than danced.
We were getting hot and crowded, and so decided to leave. As we turned to go, another group of children appeared and I heard the first strains of "Deewangi Deewangi," one of my favorite songs from Om Shanti Om. From the back of the room we could see the dancers as they executed moves from the film. Sonal joked that she was embarassed; I seemed to know more about current Bollywood cinema than she.
As we left the expo center, a crowd of people were waiting to get in. Apparently the room had reached capacity, and they were waiting for people to leave before allowing others in. Those with tickets were lead to another door, but those who were hoping to buy tickets would have to wait a few hours in the hopes that people would leave. We took some photos in front of the center; Sonal asked a passing girl (who happened to be one of the models) to take our picture. She happily complied.
Sonal dropped us off at Journal Square and we took the path back to the city. I found myself singing songs from Om Shanti Om as best I could. I made references to the film and told Yw I couldn't wait for her to see it. She laughed and said I was entertaining myself; she couldn't understand any of my jokes or references. I assured her she would.