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20060721 - In the Sea of Japan


Well, I can tell you that the food is a serious paradigm shift. The Japanese food is full of fish, vegetables, rice, and tea with almost zero fat. The Russian food, on the other hand, is meat, potatoes, and stuff like that just full of fat. You can certainly tell the difference in the body builds too! But, that is what make the different cultures so interesting.  I must say, however, that in both Japan and Russia that smoking and drinking play a large role; I think I am to find, if the Russians on board are any indication, that the Russians take their drinking seriously – this morning there was one of the passed out on the deck in the lounge. Smoking is pervasive throughout the ship and you can spell it everywhere. Ah, well, that is their problem. I wonder how much Cancer they have?


As mentioned, the food on board is good and for lunch and dinner there seems to always be a beginning course, soup, and the main course; the coffee is good. There was a little live music in the cabaret lounge but this does not seem to be a party crowd. However,  just outside the lounge was what seemed a whole family whose father was playing a portable electronic keyboard.  The whole group was happily singing along Russian folk songs in a loud voice and just having a ball. I guess this is life aboard a Russian ship.


Weather conditions are not bad since the temperature is a nice 21C but it is humid. There does not seem to be much wind but I do see a few white caps out there. I have read that this passage can be quite rough – fortunately that is not the case now. We can see towns along the northern Japanese coast glowing in the overcast. And so now to be rocked asleep by the undulation of the ship’s slow roll and pitch.


20060722 -  Still a flat calm sea as we just moved along. This was a day to catch up on my notes, read, eat, and sleep – such a life. The ship was not in bad shape but there were a number of rusty places that could have been better – but, it ran and the rooms were good with hot showers and all. There was, however, some smell of urine in the toilets but, then again, things seem to be in the works for making it better. This ship travel from Japan to Russia is great but I don’t think many know about it. Most certainly it is a “traveler’s” ship and not for the fancy tourist.


20060723 – This is a key day since we dock soon in the Russian port of Vladivostok. I was up and ready watching the new green land mass come into view. But, first I must go down to breakfast of some sort of hot cereal, coffee, an omelet, and some peas.  There was no jam but the bread was good. The pilot boat came along side so we were near.  It was not long before I  could see the large port and city dwellings. We edged up to the dock using the side thrusters -  neat way to “park” a large boat. After some time I was called to pick up my passport since the ship kept it for the duration; this seems to be the practice.  I determined I was the only American on board plus one German fellow with all the rest Russian or Japanese – needless to say I was the standout.  As we lined up to exit the ship with many dragging along boxes of this and that and a flat screed TV plus a number of bicycles..  I gathered my pack and towed my roll along pack but I did have to carry it down the gang plank.  Then it was up stairs to the immigration.  This situation and most foreign places seem to have many steps and stairs everywhere making it rough for the disabled.


Now I am waiting for the immigration officer to process my entry which seems to take checking of a number of items plus several stamps in my passport. Finally, I am through and on to customs. Here was a surprise –m as my time came to come forward a customs officer stepped forwards, looked at me then nodded for me to just go ahead. Just outside the exit door was my arranged for guide to get me to my hotel and give me a couple hours orientation to the city.  She is an English teacher at the local university and the reason I was put through customs so quickly, it seems, is that the customs’ agents were here English students – yep, it is who you know, anywhere in the world.


So off we went, dropped my stuff at the very nice Vladivostok Hotel, and sped off to see some of the key sights while chatting about the local people and situation. Boy, Perestroika made some large changes and literally turned over everyday life, economy, and housing (once all owned by the government) to the people. The Russian people were now responsible for their own living. This is good but it left a society with a few at the top and many at the bottom.  Hence, one sees many not so nice apartment buildings, now condominiums, everywhere. I can see where there are a number of large construction projects of newer living quarters. The streets, unlike Japan, and a normal littered set with broken sidewalks here and there, but it appears things are in the works and Russia is a building society. It will probably take 50 years to square things away but it will happen.  While some of the people seem serious and grim they tend to be the older generation. While on my after noon walking tour, especially along the beach, I observed a bunch of sailing boats in a regatta and many happy strollers of young folks along the board walk. The amusement park was full of happy kids and vendors along the way. Of course, this was Sunday and a work day is probably different. People were walking everywhere up and own the streets. I stopped at a Baskin & Robbins for a great ice cream. This topped off the good lunch I had had back at the hotel – chicken kabobs and rice with coleslaw. I watched the people and was about to enter an museum but I was not excited at seeing period furniture and there were not English subtitles making it more difficult to understand the history. Besides, my interest is in the people and their living now.


Back to the hotel and discover my wireless connection so I can get email an add to my log.  As I get off at my floor there is a floor steward who hands you your key and who has your passport so one is not going anywhere without proper check out. I did exchange some dollars for Rubles which can be done on the street as well. There seem to be plenty of ATM machines around so Russia has gone modern and is moving money. Maybe I will try one to see how it works since I will need some cash on the train. The prices here are not bargain prices and the Russian tourist industry is just getting its infrastructure built.


20060724 – I am up early to get my travel notes done and up load some photos to update my WEB site, then to breakfast. After that my guide picks me up and we will check luggage at the train station but have the afternoon free since the train to the west does not leave until 20:00. Mind you, the ticket says it leaves at 18:00 but that time is the time of the destination – one has to get used to this, although it is a bit confusing. My guide assures me I will not miss the train. Alas, to see a few more sights of Vladivostok. I can see the train tracks headed west and conjure up what it will be like traveling across Russia as has been done since the latter 1800’s.


Now on the Russian Tran Siberian Rail Way train.


20060725 – En route on the Russian Trans Siberian Railway


Well, I can tell you there is ONE time table standard in Russia – all transportation is quoted in terms of Moscow time – now that is convenient for a spread out country, all you must know is what the time difference is for your location. For instance, my rail ticket said we leave at 13:15 (Moscow time) so for Vladivostok just add 7 hours and we left promptly at 20:15. Of course, I guess I had better set my watch to Moscow time if I am going to be in sync.


The country side is green and lush with pockets of small industry along the way. The day is bright and beautiful as I sit here typing and looking out on the broad flat plain of green.  A while ago I was served tea to start my morning until the dinning care opens up and I can get some breakfast. I think I shall take a break now for some breakfast then just relax, read and watch the scenery.


I am now sitting two travel mates, Andre from Germany, and Tomokazu from Japan sharing some food. We had just stopped at a station and I purchased some wonderful blackberries that are very sweet.  I did have a good dinner of tender beef with an egg on top plus potatoes with bread. – Not cheap but not expensive for a train ($11).  It is evening with a very slow sunset over the vast green plains that could be the Mid-west or Australia or one of many places.  This is good country that does not seem to be cultivated at the moment but I understand that the Russian agriculture is moving ahead.  In fact, Russia could feed the World. Needless to say the buildings are not the most modern here in the wilderness and most could use a little fixing up.  Russia seems to be building a new railroad bed next to this old one which should open up the interior. 


Our train car is air conditioned but the car behind us is not, or it is broken. While it is not hot outside the inside of the train can get warm.  The train windows have some interesting window coverings. . Right now we are crossing a very large river as big as the Missouri. 


The Trans Siberian Railway is everything I imagine, including the people on the train and the accommodations.  I feel very safe and the trip is an easy one, just long. Of course, many of the buildings seem to be derelict left from one of the Russian “eras”. I would love to know the detailed history of some of these places. I cannot help but wonder what these people went through over the past 100 years. Russia seems to have undergone radical change after radical change for the past 1,000 years thanks to people like Genghis Kahn among the many.


More thoughts tomorrow.


20060726 – Trans Siberian Railway


Today is another bright and beautiful day shinning rolling hills of forest. There seems to be such great potential in the Russian country side that stretches for thousands of miles. It would seem that this is a treasure the would make the Russian people very rich.  I understand that in Russia there are a very few rich folks and many poor – too bad the rich cannot share and make the general populace rich too and everyone makes out. Of course, the USA is going the other way creating a great gulf between the rich and poor with a disappearing middle class that really did build and make America. Perhaps in time Russia will change.


Walking between the rail cars is an experience since after you close one door behind you there is only a metal platform between you and the hitch that is plainly seen, plus the noise of the coupling. Of course, as I tried the next car door I found it locked and myself with a sudden feeling of ‘oops’ can I go back. It turns out it was the dining car which was not yet open.


Throughout the train during the day blasts Russian “modern” music that has ONE beat, ONE melody, and different words to each piece. This is not even ‘elevator” music – I don’t think soothing and tranquil is in the Russian vocabulary.  It appears that many of the Russians seem depressed and have a sort of frown on their face. I don’t know where the happiness is.  There are, of course, times when I have seen quite jolly Russians enjoying themselves. The Japanese don’t smile in public much either and always seem to look so very serious. Who knows why, I am not a sociologist. I remember the Tahitians being a happy people, maybe it’s the South Pacific atmosphere.  Americans are a mixed lot with the East Coast being far more serious in nature than the West. As I try to smile at most all of them it is interesting to see the response as I pass through different cultures.


This afternoon I met one of my communication challenges of the trip. While on the ship I was seated with a German fellow at a dining table, Andre, then two Japanese women joined us along with two Japanese young men at the next table. Hence, we carried on quite a conversation, mostly in English with some Japanese thrown in. So after we went different ways off the ship I found that when I got on the train to Ulaan Ude that my compartment mate was Andre and one of the Japanese fellows, Tomo, was also on the train in a compartment in the next car with a Russian lady. Alas we spent quite a bit of time together. I had the opportunity to talk to the Russian lady with her 4 words of English and my two of Russian. However, it was amazing that through some words in our languages, gestures, and drawing diagrams we were able to communicate a great deal. She is married with a 25 year old daughter who is a flight attendant and they live in a small apartment I was able to communicate that my wife was a French teacher whom I had met in Greece and 5 years later I went around the world to pick her up, that we lived in Mexico for two years, and that we have two children – a consultant in genetics and a lawyer. Amazing!  So, it is possible to communicate without knowing the language – so what is George W’s problem? He can’t even communicate effectively in English and our diplomats just make a mess of the international scene.  Maybe all their heads should roll, as specified by Genghis Kahn, and let the real people communicate on an effective level.


Later on all four of us went to dinner together and just had a great time caring on about this and that and laughing – what a time. I had so much fun I just bought the dinner for all of us since I know this was the thing to do. Alas, who cares – what difference does it make.  Then we all went back to the compartment for Andre and me since it was air conditioned and we continued to watch the sun set and note the scenery as it went by. A young girl of 16 was also staying in our compartment (sleeping cars in all but America do not get paranoid about mixing sexes) who belonged to the traveling family in the next compartment joined in with her limited English. It was amazing how the young girl, Susha, improved her English as our conversation went on. Mind you, it became fun when Andre was explaining how he liked crepes with a raisin in it – just try to explain raisin starting with grape and wine … we had a picture book of items so we rapidly got to grape then “sun dried”  item and raisin in Russian – wow. Yes, it sometimes takes diligence and persistence and use of very simple words, related words, and present tense simple verbs, but communication can take place. Exhausted I fell asleep quickly with the jostle of the train.


20060727 – Arriving in Ulaan Ude.


Upon arriving Ulaan Ude I said good by to my new international friends and met with my guide who took me to my home stay.  I thought there was going to be an English speaker in the home, but that was not to be – on the other hand the woman is aa French teacher at the local polytechnic college. So, now all I have to do is to dig out my French phrase book and shift my mind into my French, but, but – Spanish comes out. Argggg. Ok, so it will take me a couple of hours to get into French gear and swap my Spanish memory for French memory – alas such language challenges, what fun.  Of course, when I get to Spain French will come out instead of Spanish, but I shall cross that bridge when I come to it since I have done this before when going from Mexico to France and back.


Ulaan Ude is a good sized city, 2xx K people, and this after noon I shall walk about and tomorrow I get a more formal tour.  Now for the dejeuner, petit dejeuner will be in the morning.


 20060728 – Ulaan Ude


My home stay is very nice in a well appointed apartment. Last night fixed a great dinner and her nephew, who speaks good English, came over. We had a good conversation about many things – USA, Russia, his desire to travel, his work, etc. Today I am off for a tour of the city. I did take along walk through the city yesterday right past the large statue of Lenin and down a shopping street.



Today my very nice guide picked me up and we began a great tour day, a different one. We did stop in the central square to discuss the town and the surrounding buildings along with the large head of Stalin – well, it was on the guide’s list. Our next stop was outside the city at a new Buddhist Monastery initiated in the past 20 years as Russia relaxed the religious restrictions.  Our trip out there was through some suburbs of the city with many single dwellings laid out between dirt roads. The green hills behind them made a very nice scene – I could see across the large valley to more hills in the distance, actually, very nice.  My guide, Luda, explained many aspects of Buddhism and the rituals, like always facing the Buddha as you walked out of the temple backwards, sprinkling rice here and there, as well as spinning the prayer wheels for purposes.  This Monastery has several schools within it and is a full time teaching / learning center for the spiritual ways relating to the facets of life.  There were many faces of Budda and a diorama and Mandela depicting the perfect world – and, why not. Should we not focus on becoming to that level of being?


After a quick stop at the Internet shop to catch up on my email and upload some travel log the guide and I walked to find a place to eat. Sure enough, we found a “fast food” place for a quick sandwich. Our next segment of my “tour” was probably the best since we took public transportation to the edge of the city (a jitney that hauled up to 10 passengers and move quickly through the traffic. It reminded me of Mexico and many other places with their Peseros or Por Puestos – an efficient way to move people without large busses, besides, it helps unemployment.  Heaven knows America is going to need good effective public transportation in the next 20 years to accommodate the senior citizen who no longer drives and the younger and poorer folks who cannot afford a car but need to get to work – This ride gave me a much better look at Russian city life and  the row upon row of apartment complexes build in the mid- 20th century by the government. Now, these places belong to the people and building groups constructing new apartment complexes. We go off at one spot and just walked the streets, up some cement stairs that were crumbling, shades of Mexico. Of course curbing and streets had discontinuities in the just about everywhere.  We stopped in a small park to just chat about Russia with a cool breeze and a few sprinkles of rain in the warm air, a cute little playground near by. The row of very nice looking apartments stood near by that probably housed the more affluent at one time; many shops occupied the fist floor. We then walked down and crossed a main boulevard (not a small feat) to the large covered food market. Here we shopped for some fruit, bread, jam, and cheese for me to take on the train – keeps the expense down.  I also purchased some tea since each train care has a samovar with hot water. This is cheaper than the dinning care and more fun to share with one’s compartment mates. 


Just watching the people was fascinating. My guide is really Mongolian (a Buryat) with typical darker skin and high cheek bones.  She explained to me that here in Ulaan Ude that several ethnic groups get along very well as do the religions of Russian Orthodox, Buddhist, and Islamic.  We walked on stopping for a drink of Arsa, a non-alcolholic yeast drink popular for the last 1,000 years, served from a large “wooden keg” on wheels – it was really quite good and refreshingly cool.  They say it is supposed to be good for your health, this I can use.


Out taxi pick us up and we were off to a Buryat village to learn about their ways and a good preparation for my Gobi trip. Along the way I notices tracts of land where many new homes were being built. Some of the home indicated there was good wealth for some people and quiet modern architecture. 


We arrived at the village and were met with a green scarf and drinking bowl of milk and green tea. This was only the beginning.  In the yurt we sat, men on one side and women on the other with the respective gender materials on each side – bow and arrow on the man’s side and kitchen stuff on the women’s. Nope, little hope here for men to cook or women’s liberation … Then came the special drink of buttermilk, water, and flour – actually not bad; this was followed by a liquor drink of 40% alcohol, I will sleep tonight. Of course, milk nd green tea was served throughout.  Then there was a great bread with a spread of buttermilk and flour, tomatoes, cucumbers, followed by dumplings, and a sweet “cookie” with jam. Naturally, I was encouraged to dress the part and put on a tunic like that of Genghis Kahn then we played a table game using bones with (obviously) four sides representing camel, horse, goat, and sheep – the object was to knock like bones together without disturbing any others and you could then take one for your kitty. Needles to say, I was the winner. 


Always begin clean and neat the wash basin was outside with a funnel like device and center plunger which when pressed upwards allowed water to flow out. Neat, but one has to keep filling the resavoir.


Now back to my home stay and a good night’s sleep after a good day’s walk about.


20060729 – Leaving Ulaan Ude for Ulaan Baatar


Up now I am ready for a hot shower and good breakfast of fried potatoes, cheese, cold meat, cucumber, and a crape with jam plus tea. Yesterday it was an omelets – now I am not starving.   All I have to do is pack up and my guide will make sure I don’t miss the train in the early afternoon.


Break for an overnight train ride to Ulaan Baatar arriving at 0530 tomorrow morning. But, at least I scheduled a down day before my Gobi tour starts.



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