Monday, August 18, 2008

Russia: Moscow, Trans Siberia Express, Novosibirsk & solar eclipse

A short roundup of my trip to Russia. On Sunday July 27 Peter, Bram and I took the 09.30 flight from Amsterdam to Moscow. Thanks to the wonders of early internet check-in (I got up at 03.30 the previous night) we had a row of exit seats. The lady from our travel agent picked us -- and several other people -- up from Sheremetyevo 2 (I've been there when there was only one Sheremetyevo, which was the designated international airport, and Domodyedovo, a hundred kilometres away and to the south of Moscow, was the designated domestic airport, so a transfer included a two to three hour drive around Moscow, back in the Iron Curtain days), and took us to our hotel in the North of Moscow.

Customs & immigration went smooth, and after a quick bite in the hotel we went to the Moscow subway, armed with a map, and in the early evening walked around the Red Square. It was decidedly strange: on the one side there is the Kremlin with Lenin's tomb where the Cold War Soviet Union vibe still resonates, while on the other side there is the GUM department store, which -- at that time in the evening -- with its tacky, Christmas-season-like lightning formed a very strange, capitalistic contrast, not unlike similar department stores in London and New York. The State Historical Museum and St. Basil's Cathedral formed a better complement to the Kremlin.

In a way, it typified modern Russia: the communist old mixing with the capitalist new in an often clashing way: ugly concrete living blocs adorned with screaming billboards and shining neon ads, babushkas in the streets and on railway stations selling Russian staple foods along with typical Western sweets, mostly western cars riding on crowded roads overseen by -- what I asssume to be -- traffic controllers who looked more like KGB agents.

My friend Peter remarked upon it first: Russia, or at least central Moscow still looks and feels like a police state. I started noticing it more and more after he said it: there are security people everywhere, and it was impossible for us to see if they were the local police, state agents, military, or private security people. Just that there were a lot of them. Moscow doesn't have the huge number of CCTVs that London has, but more than makes up for it in security manpower.

The Russians themselves, though, seemed undisturbed by it, and carried on as if it was business as usual (maybe it has been worse). The few times that we almost lost our way -- both in and outside the subway -- people were very friendly and tried to help. And I never felt unsafe in the way I would in the seedier part of most big American cities, but that is probably because we never got into the seedier part of Moscow.

The next day we took an extended walking tour through Moscow, and the cultural clashes continued: old Zadkinesque statues alongside kitschy advertisement columns; two identical flats: one turned into a modern hotel ("Golden Ring Hotel" IIRC) while the other remained a Soviet era, grey concrete block cum living appartment; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: an old building defaced with aircos hanging out the windows; a statue of Peter the Great on the Moskva River (next to the old chocolate factory) that redefines ugliness; the TASS headquarters ("The press bureau that kept announcing that the fall of the decadent west was imminent," I said jokingly, "and they would have been right if the credit crisis had come twenty years earlier.") across the street from a Delifrance coffeeshop (even if it might not have been an official Delifrance outlet, it sure looked like one, and the cappuccino was great); The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour from which a huge bridge crosses the Moskva River: at the oppsite end there was some modern artwork that didn't quite work; and more that I'm not coming up with right now.

There also seems to be a tradition for couples to pledge their (eternal) love on the bridges over the Moskva River by putting a padlock, with the names of the partners written or engraved on the lock, on its fences. There even was a bridge where special -- well, I can only call them -- 'trees' were installed where lovers could snap their locks on its special branches (This was the Luzkhov Bridge: you can find almost anything out on the internet these days). Typically, the fences and/or trees closest to the middle of the river where had the highest lock density. Nice.

Ellen and Freek, our other two travel companions, arrived later in the day by train, and joined us later on. We went around the Red Square again (they hadn't seen it), although this time in daylight. At least the GUM department store looked less tacky. We had an excellent, if somewhat expensive dinner in a steakhouse, figuring a good meal might be in order since we didn't know what to expect on the Trans Siberia Express.

The next day, Ellen and Freek went on an early morning subway trip to check out several metro stations, while Bram, Peter and I took it easy and walked around the local area around our hotel and shopped some stocks for the train trip. The local park wasn't anything special, but one certain 24-hour shop -- nearby the subway station -- caught our interest: it didn't sell food or drinks but solely mobile phones! I guess it's of the utmost import to be able to get a new cell phone 24/7. Oh Brave New World.

In the afternoon we got on the Jenisej train of the Transiberia Express. Because we had booked a year in advance, we were able to get first class cabins: other eclipse travellers we spoke with had to settle for second class ones. The difference? Well, first class cabins have only two bunks -- that double as sitting benches -- while second class cabins have four, and third class cabins have 6 or 8 (not sure). It's the difference between being with 2, 4 or 6 to 8 people in the same space, which can add up the lobger the trip takes.
I only took the Moscow -- Novosibirsk leg, which takes 48 hours. I understand that the full St. Petersburg -- Vladivostok line takes seven days. And there are no showers: only two toilets with little wash basins per wagon, meaning that you have to share the same washrooms with considerably less people in first class than in second or third. I can believe that a third class cabin will not exactly have the most pleasant smell at the end of a full tour, and why hardened Russians live through it by the liberal application of vodka.
Therefore, it's advisable to get out at interesting places like Novosibirsk (mostly because of the solar eclipse), Irkutsk and Ulaan Batar (OK: so my freinds switched over to the Trans Mongolia Express).
There's a schedule -- all in Moscow time -- that tells you where and for how long the train stops at every station. It's important to know, as the train does not blow a whistle or give any other sign when it leaves: it just leaves. If you miss it, well, too bad. I have heared a story from an experienced Russia traveller that this indeed happened to a friend of his, and that in the Soviet era. That man through he was in deep trouble, while the local train station manager took him to his house, had his wife cook some extra potatoes and borsht, put him in the guest bed, and put him on the next train 24 hours later. No problem, and this must have happened many times before.
But we didn't want to miss the train, as then we would have missed the solar eclipse in Novosibirsk. So we took care when we got out for a quick glimpse at several stations, where people sell local food and drinks (see the picture to the left). Also, every wagon has two poborskis -- train stewards would be the best translation I think -- who keep the wagon clean, are available 24 hours a day (that's why there are two: they take turns), and warn unexperienced travellers how long the train stays at every station, and even urge you back on board if necessary. Our poborskis were two blond Russian, middle-aged women who took care of us like mothers.

There was also a restaurant wagon, and while the menu was completely in Russian (and my cyrillic had gone quite rustic over the years), there was a fellow passenger who translated it into English. The food was actually quite OK, and there was also plenty of beer, wine and other drinks. So we only ate food bought at stations for breakfast and lunch -- we had to try that, as well, and some sausages were quite nice -- and had dinner at the restaurant wagon.

Apropos Russian beer -- there will be more beer in the Denvention post -- I mainly found the following ones:

--Baltica: lager from St. Petersburg;
--Stary Melnik (Old Miller): lager from Moscow (I think. Update: from the Efes brewery in Moscow, if I believe teh intarwebs);
--Siberski Corona (Siberian Crown): lager from somewhere in Siberia (Update: it's located in Omsk);

There are much more local beers, but these three were the ones we saw the most. Also, both in Moscow, along the Trans Siberia Express, and in Novosibirsk a wide range of import beers was available: from the inevitable Heineken, Budweiser and Carlsberg to Hoegaarden (half-liter bottles in a supermarket in Berdsk, a village nearby Novosibirsk) to Efes (lots of it in Moscow: a Turkish invasion? Update: they seem to have a brewery in Moscow, which also brews Stary Melnik, which explains a lot).
Anyway, all three were perfectly drinkable, although not really special. Decent lagers, as they go, and since the average temperature was around 28-29 Celsius, they went in well.

So, after a pleasant two-day stay in the Jenisej train, we arrived in Novosibirsk. Novosibirsk is not a very pretty city, to say the least. Actually, the train station was one of the better-looking buildings. However, our hotel was somewhat outside of Novosibirsk in a suburb (or separate village: hard to say) called Mosorow. A local man from the travel agency picked us up from Novosibirsk station and took us there: the next morning, he was also the driver of the bus we hired so we could get to a good spot to watch the solar eclipse. The hotel was luxurious for Russian standards: I suspect it's a resort for better-off Russians. Now, however, it was filled with solar eclipse enthusiasts: two women from Belgium, a group from Portugal, a couple of Americans and five Dutchmen. We had a good meal, and the next day was the big day.

August 1: solar eclipse day. We found out that our driver and bus were the same one who picked us up from the station, which was fine in all things but one: our driver didn't speak English. But with maps, GPSs, hand and feet we got in the direction where we wanted to go. The plan was to go to the shore of lake Novosibirskoye, which is the huge water basin of a dam in the River Ob, mostly meant to supply Novosobirsk and surrounds (the third largest city in Russia with more than 1,5 million people) with water.
The idea being that in the middle of Summer time, clouds form easier overland (the land is then quite warm and water easily evaporates from trees and greenery), while the do not form over relatively cool lakes like Novosibirkoye. We certainly hoped so, because the evening before it was very cloudy, and cloudy weather and rain were forecast for Novosibirsk on August 1. And indeed it was a cloudy day, but as the day progressed the cloud cover thinned.
First we set out to find a bank (we were running out of rubles), and eventually found one in Berdsk. Then we did some shopping (food and drinks as we didn't know where we would end up) in a Berdsk supermarket that was very well-stocked, and had an ATM on which our cards worked. They even had cold half-liter bottles of Hoegaarden: what could go wrong?
Thing was, our driver didn't know the way around that part very well either, so he had to ask around a lot. Eventually we ended up on a little beach resort: the actuall beach was about threee metres down, and the resort had food stalls and a beer tent. I'm fairly sure this (Google Map Location) was the place. There were a few more busses down there, as well, but the place was easily big enough to hold all those people. Mostly Russians, although there was a group of Belgians from the Antwerp observatorium.
So this was my first solar eclipse where there was beer available (others were in the middle of the Zambian highlands and the Australian desert, hours away from habitation). Also, while there were clouds forming all around the lake, they dissipated over the lake, giving us a clear shot at the sun.
By the time first contact came around, the sky was virtually cloudless. Everything went fine. Now, every solar eclipse is different and what I found special about this one was the following:
  • It was the first one I saw across a body of water. Normally we try to avoid the sea (too much potential for cloud formation), but here it worked fine. As second contact neared you could see the sun's reflection in the water get dimmer. Also, as the shadow of the moon came from the northeast, this was the first time I actually saw it coming (it moves so fast you have to be in the right spot to see it coming from afar);
  • Because of this, I could see the first diamond ring exactly on time (if you look too early -- without eclipse glasses, you're temporarily blinded and miss part of the totality. So timing is very important: in the previous two solar eclipses I missed most of the first diamond ring);
  • There were -- I believe -- at least two planets visible nearby the sun/moon totality: Mercury and Venus (need to check this);
  • There was only one prominence, at about two o'clock, which was to be expected as solar activity was at a minimum;
(Added August21):
  • I didn't expect to see little inverted sun sickles in the shadows of shrubs and trees because it was so windy. But I was wrong: in the wavering shadow of a tree I saw a cornucopia of long sun sickles that were quite big, as well.

I'm waiting for my friends to return from their more extended trip, so I can place some of their pictures of the eclipse. In the meantime, Odd H√łydalsvik has some good images here.

Then it was back to the hotel to celebrate another successful solar eclipse. I couldn't celebrate too hard as I had an early morning flight to Moscow (I travelled back home much earlier than my companions because I wanted to attend Denvention), for which I would be picked up at 03.30 AM. To put insult to injury, however, my travel companions would be picked up at the same time -- the hotel was some 30 kilometres from downtown Novosibirsk -- even though their train would only depart at 11.20 AM.

So, as I got down at half past three, very sleepy, and checked out. It wasn't as easy as that, though, since the hotel people claimed I had damaged the bathroom door in my room. Now, when I entered my room two days ago, I did notice that there was a very slight dent in the bathroom door, but I assumed the hotel knew about it and dismissed it. But no: they claimed I did it, and demanded a 10,000 rubles (approx. $500 or 350 euros) payment for it.

Well, I have been travelling around the world very extensively. For 5 years with my previous employer, and for over 10 years with my current one (I settled back into a less travel-extensive job three years ago) I have spent on average 200 to 250 days a year abroad sleeping in hotels. That's some 3500 nights spent in hotel rooms, give or take a few hundred, and I've never had a problem like this. To be absolutely clear: I *never* damage hotel property. I was extremely pissed off.

By that time, my friends were also there, and they -- especially Peter -- supported my arguments. We went back up to my room to photograph the extent of the damage, asked for names of the people involved and when they weren't forthcoming took their pictures, then coughed up the money. After all, with a plane and a train to catch, what choice did I have?

Finally, an act of inspiration on Peter's part, we demanded a receipt in English. This was taking very long, as none of the hotel employees spoke English very well. It was taking so long that I was thinking about forgetting about the receipt, because missing the plane and train would be even more expensive, when suddenly the hotel people dropped all charges.

That was typical: it confirmed my suspicion that I was being conned all along. Anyway: I am used to checking damages of a rental car before driving off (to avoid future conflicts), but never have experienced this with hotel rooms. Let's call this a lesson learned.

Anyway, I made my domestic flight with time to spare. So while I was waiting for the boarding call, somebody walks up to me and asks me if I was Jetse de Vries. Since I was still fuming a bit, I hardly noticed the first time. Then I found out it was C.A.L.: an Australian author (who otherwise prefers to remain pseudonymous) whose story "The Rising Tide" I had lifted from the email slush and which we subsequently published in Interzone #204. The author was also on a Trans Siberia Express/Solar Eclipse tour with a group of Australians, and they were on the same flight.

Just when crossing the Siberian taiga for 48 hours (and then barely covering a third of it) the world had become enormous to me, in that moment it immediately became small again. After my initital bafflement, I had a great talk with the author, and was said when we had to part ways at Sheremtyevo airport Teminal 1 where the author's group had a connecting domestic flight to St. Petersburg, and I had to go to Terminal 2 for my international flight to Amsterdam. The meeting lifted my spirits back up to their post-eclipse high, though.

I had to wait 7 hours at Sheremtyevo, as my connection time to the early morning flight to Amsterdam was too short, and I had to catch the late afternoon one. Got over that with coffee, lunch, beer and reading Racing the Dark, Alaya Dawn Johnson's debut novel (another writer I lifted from the IZ slush: actually the very first one. "Third Day Lights" -- Interzone #200 -- was reprinted in the Cramer/Hartwell YBSF 11). It comes highly recommended (and with a little warning: she lets her characters suffer. And I mean suffer hard before things get somewhat better. If they get better), and Alaya sent me a story set in the same world earlier this year. It's called "Far and Deep" and will appear in a future issue of Interzone.

Finally, I got home at around 10 PM after a very long day (timewise, it felt like 04,00 AM the next day to me), so I reisited the temptation to start up the computer to hundreds of unanswred emails and went to bed. Two days later I had to catch my flight to Denver for Denvention, on which more in a later post.