One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Marketplace

There are lots of small things to report today.

Jess asked if I gave any presents to Marina and Tatyana on the train. I opened up my bag of fun stuff and gave Marina some sparkly pencils, some lip balm, a Canada flag badge, and a Canada flag pin. She looked happy. As for Tatyana, I suspected her of being the type of person who doesn't receive presents graciously, so I didn't give her one.

The Diet Coke ("Coca Cola Light," actually) that I bought a few minutes ago down by the river tastes a lot more like cinnamon than any Diet Coke I've had before. I suppose it's possible that Diet Coke for the Russian, Siberian, or Central Asian market has a different formula than the more biting and metallic Diet Coke to which I am accustomed.

The weird taste in my mouth may, however, have been caused by something weird and different that I tried today at the big outdoor market. I kept seeing these vendors selling small flat pieces of something beige - I thought maybe it was marzipan, or toffee, or chocolate. I went up to this one woman, pointed at the little beige blocks soaking in a shallow tub of water, and said, "Shto?" She told me the name, and I render it here phonetically, as best I can: "see-AIRJ-a-vit." I have no idea what you'd call it in English - it's probably just some familiar plant transformed into an unfamiliar product. From the woman's hand gestures, I gathered that the substance is meant to be good for digestion. She gave me a piece to try for free. It was a lot like chewing gum in terms of texture, and it tasted like trees. I bought a second piece for 10 roubles, and am hoping that the English-speaking staff at the hotel will tell me what it is. The woman wrote down the name for me on a scrap of paper, and I'd puzzle it out right here, except that I have a lot of trouble reading Russian handwriting in cursive.

The market was a lot of fun to walk around. It was mainly fruit and vegetables for sale, but there were also stalls selling baked goods, underpants, stationery, flowers, shoes, and toys. On the outskirts, there were two key-makers. I almost bought a pair of slippers to wear on the train, in order to avoid further violations of train etiquette. The price was definitely right, but I just didn't want to add any more stuff to my stuff unless I really, really wanted it, and so I passed the slippers by. All the fruit and vegetable vendors had portable scales, and some of the older sets of scales were really interesting to me from a design point of view. In other words, they were cool-looking. There were all kinds of nuts and seeds for sale. A number of people were also selling pine cones, and I didn't understand that at all. What do people do with them? Surely they don't eat them, or do they? In Canada, the only use I ever discovered for them was to throw them around.

I felt like this marketplace was a lot more lively and fun than the one I visited near Izmaylovsky Park in Moscow. Of course, I may be projecting my emotions onto it, and failing to see it objectively, because I'm a lot more relaxed now and having a better time than I was on that day. I am more lively and upbeat, myself.

A final note about the market... There was one row of vendors' tables, on the fringe, where the items for sale were kittens, puppies, hamsters, and turtles. I took a bunch of pictures here, pictures of curious puppies poking their heads out of cardboard boxes and other, similar scenes. Some of the puppies were selling for 50 roubles, which is only about $2 Canadian. I'm sure that none of them were spayed or neutered, or had received any shots - they were all very young. The vendors' main task, apart from talking to customers, was to foil the puppies' continual escape attempts. I decided that this one special puppy should be named "Steve McQueen," because he was especially brave and determined to get away, always climbing out of his cardboard box, reminding me of Steve McQueen's character in The Great Escape. Some of the vendors seemed kinder to the animals than others; some seemed tired, frustrated, and a little too rough for my liking. It would be so much easier to sell carrots - carrots, that always stay where you put them.

I gave some money to a woman and her child who were sitting on the sidewalk on ulitsa Karla Marxa (Karl Marx Street). She was dressed very exotically and colourfully, like a gypsy, and she had dark skin. She didn't look European, or Mongolian, or Chinese. She looked like she was from Afghanistan. Maybe she was actually Roma - the ethnicity we usually mean when we say the word, "gypsy." I feel like Irkutsk is a bit of a crossroads.

I saw some young girls doing tennis drills on a big, well-maintained set of courts in the middle of the city. Maybe they've been inspired by the example of Maria Sharapova, the Siberian teenager who is now the top-ranked tennis player in the world.

Many of the private security guards in Russia wear a full set of black, grey, and white camouflage. It's as if they expect at any moment to be thrust into serious urban warfare, where their ability to blend into their surroundings may mean the difference between life and death. For all I know, this may be the case.

I think I'm correct in saying that none of the internet places listed in my Lonely Planet book are where they're supposed to be. The Trans-Siberian guide by Lonely Planet was last updated in 2002, and I guess that these places have closed down. I have, however, found two on my own. Both are below street level. The one I'm in now is very Spartan, but the connection is fast.

Another hooker-related phone call last night. The woman was more persistent this time, though; I don't know what she said to follow-up after my initial "no, thanks," but whatever it was, it was delivered in this awful syrupy coaxing tone of voice. Blick. I declined again, more firmly this time, and it was over.

It's 3:45 pm here, and I want to be at the train station by 7:00 because boarding starts at 7:30. I think I'll go back to the hotel, have a beer, and write in my journal whatever I haven't remembered to write here. I've made a real effort over the past two days to find a place to use the phone here in Irkutsk, with no luck. I'll try again in Ulaanbaatar, but I won't get there until Friday. After checking into my hotel, I'll go exploring that afternoon and evening to find a way to phone home to Canada. For those of you who would have liked to have talked to me, I would have liked to talk to you, too - but please know that I'm happy, healthy, and safe. I thought that Irkutsk would feel like a kind of frontier town, but in truth, it's a very civilized and relaxing place. I didn't take any midday naps yesterday, and as a result, I slept well last night and am adjusting to this time zone much more quickly than I did when I arrived in St. Petersburg.

Until Friday or Saturday, take care.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Listvyanka

I didn't fall asleep last night until about 6:00 am local time. Train lag - it's worse than jet lag.

I went on my day trip today to the small lakeside village of Listvyanka. I have this one US bill, a hundred dollar bill, that has a weird black mark or stamp on one side of it, and no one will change it for me - I've tried in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and now here in Irkutsk at the hotel, because I wanted to have a bit more money on hand for buying crafts and the like. I had to change some of my other, more respectable bills. Every currency exchange office rejects this one US hundred. I'm going to have words with the good people at TD Canada Trust when I get back.

I walked to the bus station but didn't take a regular bus. I climbed into one of the mini-buses that run on an as-needed basis between Irkutsk and Listvyanka all day long. The trip takes about an hour, and cost me 60 roubles, or about $3 Canadian. I took some Gravol a few minutes before we left, and it had its usual stupefying effect - I could barely keep my eyes open, and my underlying fatigue and the grey, soft, misty, rainy quality of the day were aggravating factors. The scenery, what I did see of it, resembles very closely the terrain on the west side of Lake Superior in Ontario: big hills covered with dense coniferous forest. The driver played the radio loud, and once again I heard the big hit of this Russian summer, "Don't Phunk With My Heart" by Black-Eyed Peas.

We pulled into the downtown of tiny Listvyanka, right on the water, and I immediately started looking around this outdoor craft/souvenir/antique market. Many of the tables were covered because it was spitting rain, but if I leaned in and tried to see some bit of merchandise through the clear plastic, the proprietor of that table would come rushing over and whip the plastic off. I spent a long time talking - "talking" here being a relative term - with an old man wearing a cloak who was selling different types of stones found locally. By "talking," I mean that I would point to a stone and say "Beautiful! What is the name?" in Russian, and he would tell me, and I would say, "Da." Some of his stones were sitting on a table, and others were soaking in a small plastic container filled with water. He was clearly quite knowledgeable about geology, because he often interjected a long explanation of how certain types of minerals are formed, or at least that's what I gathered from his hand gestures. It was interesting to me how one tiny attractive stone would cost five roubles, and a different one would cost a hundred roubles. I bought a bunch of them, and he wrote down all the names for me. He also gave me one for free, as a present. I was moved.

I also bought a few Russian dolls. My mother and sister can examine them and pick out their favourites, and then I'll have one or two remaining to give to someone else. All the ones that I bought were hand-painted in the Irkutsk area. All seven of the ones I bought are approximately the same size - about four inches high. I didn't like the paint jobs on the larger ones nearly as much.

Finally, I bought a horseshoe. I just went crazy and bought this old Russian horseshoe from an antiques vendor. It's supposedly about 80 years old, not that I really care about that, as long as it's a real horseshoe that was once stuck to a real horse. The antiques guy assured me that this was indeed the case, and it certainly looks like it. I'm going to use it back in Canada to bring myself and my loved ones good luck. I took a liking to this vendor right away because he told me that he used to be a sailor, and his ship called in some ports in British Columbia. "Prince Rupert!" he yelled when I told him I was from Canada. "I like Prince Rupert very much!" This talk sealed the deal.

Speaking of good luck, I dipped my hands, my face, and indeed my whole head into Lake Baikal in order to acquire some of its mystic powers. It is said that touching the waters of this Siberian lake increases your longevity. I balanced my body on a log, and when my head was underwater, I yelled, "Spirits of the lake, I humbly greet thee!" This act left me feeling very cold, and it's only now, hours later, in this little basement internet place, that I feel properly warm and dry again.

I ran into both Sam from London and Allan from Hawaii, people from the train, while looking around Listvyanka. Sam and I had a beer in the little tavern right beside the dock, and we discussed photography and the kinds of subjects we prefer to shoot. I said that I like to photograph small, textured, colourful things, and also things that are warped, corroded, or falling apart because of age and the elements. While we were drinking our beer, a very friendly retired woman from Belgium named Paula approached our table, asked us about ourselves, and told us a great deal about herself. For instance, she is from the Flemish part of Belgium and Flemish is her first language. Also, she has relatives in Canada - in Markham, Saskatoon, and Victoria. She planned on sending a postcard while in Vladivostok to her relatives on the west coast of Canada, saying, "Just thought I'd write while I'm in your neighbourhood." I told her about my grandparents being in Belgium during the war. I said to her in French, "I wish for you all good things," and she replied in French, "I wish the same for you, and I hope you return to Canada after your trip with the feeling that people everywhere are essentially the same, and the only bad thing is government."

Most of the photos I've seen of Lake Baikal were taken on brilliant sunny days. Today was definitely not that - I had my rain jacket on with the hood up for most of it. Still, the corner of Lake Baikal that I saw was very impressive. If I were staying longer in this area, I'd explore the wilderness around the lake a bit more, and see about a boat ride, but I'm leaving Russia tomorrow and will have to be satisfied with this brief visit.

I came back to Irkutsk on the regular 6:00 pm bus with Allan and his friend Philip from Poland. The ticket cost 35 roubles. I took some more Gravol and shifted in and out of consciousness for most of the way. I walked back into the centre of town by way of the big outdoor marketplace, which was just winding down as of 7:30 pm. I really wanted to take a picture of this group of buckets containing berries for sale, but I felt bad to do it without buying anything, because there weren't many customers around and I was conspicuous. I spent 80 roubles on a bag of some kind of red berries, and a bag of Buryat blueberries that look very good. I took the picture of the buckets with about fifteen people staring at me, some of them obviously thinking I was a crazy Western flake for seeing the buckets of berries as "krasiva" (beautiful). Some of the bystanders - mainly the vendor's little entourage of family members, and other vendors in the same section - were laughing at me openly, but it wasn't cruel laughter. The berry vendor-women appeared to be Mongolian, or maybe Chinese, but they spoke Russian to me. They could have been indigenous Buryat people, I suppose - I don't have a clear idea of what the Buryat people look like, except for the vague notion that they must look more typically Asian than the "European-Siberians," maybe kind of like the indigenous people of Canada's far north. I'm going back to the market tomorrow for more photos and maybe some snacks for my train tide to Ulaanbaatar.

I think my eyes are getting worse. Last night, I saw a woman walking toward me, and I thought she was walking a goat on a leash. When she got closer, I saw that she was just carrying a white plastic bucket. Of course, I could blame the city authorities - Irkutsk does have street lights, but they don't seem to get turned on, even after dark.

I'm taking an entire pizza onto the train tomorrow night. No more of this ridiculous Swiss-Army-knife-and-loaf-of-bread crap. I bet that no one at the train station will even blink - at Yaroslavl in Moscow, I saw people bringing all kinds of bizarre-looking items and luggage onto the train. If anyone asks, I'll tell them that the pizza box is filled with clean underwear, and if they ask to see it, I'll say, "eta nevazmozhna" (it is not possible).

I was noticing this morning how when you're far away from home and all familiar contexts, even the smallest thing can be a great pleasure. For example, having somewhere to sit where I could be out of the rain - it felt so good to climb up into the mini-bus earlier today and wait for it to fill up with passengers. Just sitting there and drying off gradually, thinking about nothing in particular.

I should mention that I received two telephone calls in my room last night asking me if I wanted a prostitute sent up. The first time I answered, the phone ringing had woken me out of a sorely needed nap, and I was confused and disoriented - I asked the woman on the phone if she spoke English, and she just said goodbye and hung up. The second time, hours later, I was more lucid and distinctly heard the question in Russian, "Do you want a beautiful girl?" I declined politely.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Overland

88 hours. 5200 kilometres. It was a big train ride from Moscow to Irkutsk.

I started out at Yaroslavl Station in Moscow on Thursday feeling very much on my guard, because the station is a chaotic, crowded, dimly lit, creepy, dangerous-feeling place at night. One of my strategies for not going crazy during this trip is to arrive very early for every appointment, so I had almost two hours at Yaroslavl to observe the comings and goings. Mainly, I stood with hundreds of others in the open area in front of the big electronic board announcing arrivals and departures. As soon as the Baikal 9/10 train to Irkutsk was ready to board, there was a stampede toward Platform 3, and I barely managed to stay on my feet. I wonder how a family with small children, or an elderly person, could possibly manage in that crush of people.

I was very lucky in my compartment-mates. There was a father and his 12-year-old daughter, with an older teenage son staying in a separate compartment. Finally, there was a woman, Tatyana, in her late 40s or early 50s, unattached to the others. They were all from the Irkutsk area, they were all quite open and friendly, and none of them knew more than a word or two of English, so it was a total immersion in Russian language and living. I got to observe every detail of how this ordinary Russian family prepared food and ate meals together, went to sleep at night, woke up in the morning, relaxed, and interacted with each other. The little girl, Marina, adopted me - teaching me a lot of new words, sharing the family's food with me, scolding me for wearing my shoes in the compartment, scolding me for not eating enough and for not eating at proper times, studying my Russian/English dictionary, asking me lots of questions about my life in Canada, and basically just watching me every minute of every day. I don't think I've ever received that much attention in my life. Tatyana, the woman, was motherly in a kind of stern, disapproving way. She re-made my bed for me because she didn't like the careless way I had done it, and seemed to offer a lot of advice to everyone in the compartment, on every topic imaginable, only about 2% of which I was able to understand. Tatyana spent a big chunk of the 88 hours doing crosswords.

I met some English-speakers in the restaurant car: Alan, a marine biologist from Hawaii who is studying whales with Russian scientists in Kamchatka and was returning from a brief holiday in Moscow and St. Petersburg; and Sam, a TV and film production assistant from London, England, who was continuing on to Mongolia and China, and from there to South America, on a trip with no fixed end-point. The restaurant car was great because it relieved the feeling of claustrophobia, it was cooler, and the large windows on either side allowed for the best possible view of the landscape.

As expected, there were several stops where it was possible to get out of the train and buy things from local people on the platform. I climbed down onto the platform almost every time, if only to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. The platforms in smaller towns were often dusty, desolate spaces with nothing in sight but rusty rail cars and power lines overhead. I often saw old ladies selling bundles of unwrapped dried fish - the entire fish, just dangling there with its dead shrivelled eyes staring at you. As someone who always teeters on the edge of motion sickness, and who can be pushed over the edge by almost anything, I knew that these fish were to be avoided at all costs. The funny thing about the stops was that the provodnitsa would say, "22 minutes here," or "18 minutes here," but inevitably the train would pull out of the station after just half of that time. I never got into trouble over this because I kept my eye on the Russian passengers and just did as they did.

Personal hygiene was pretty much limited to brushing my teeth and washing my face. I made one ambitious bathing attempt during the train ride, on Saturday afternoon. I went into the little washroom, locked the door, shaved, and scrubbed the upper half of my body with soap and water. I made an awful mess of the washroom, which thankfully had a drain in the floor, and soaked my pants and shoes. I worried and felt guilty about taking up too much time in the washroom, but no one said anything to me about it at the time or afterward. I didn't go through this routine again on Sunday because it simply wasn't worth the physical danger and punishment - the train was always rocking, rocking, rocking unpredictably, and I was thrown violently around, buffeting my head, elbows, shoulders, and knees on the metal walls.

I wrote a fair bit about the landscape in my journal, so I won't repeat myself here. I will say only that for a large part of the trip, the landscape resembled Amaranth Township. Some of you will not know what I mean - I mean flat, scrubby, with skinny trees, uninspiring. We passed over the Ural Mountains (the conventional dividing line between Europe and Asia) in the middle of the night, so I can't tell you what that area looked like. Further west, things got more dramatic and interesting, with swooping hills and valleys, and then plains. Every once in a while we'd pass through a large city, usually situated on a wide river. The cities, to me, looked like hard, charmless, brutal, industrial places, but you never see the good part of a city from the window of a train, whether you're in Russia, Canada, or anywhere else. Passing over the rivers, I saw cranes for loading and unloading ships, and barges, some piled with that weird bright yellow mineral that I think is sulfur, some piled with coal. I also saw thousands of little villages, where the standard type of home seems to be a tiny little wooden house with a tin roof. Some were beautifully kept, with colourful shutters; others were heart-breakingly run-down and looked simply uninhabitable. I saw thousands of people out working in their small backyard gardens, fishing in streams, hanging laundry out to dry, chasing children around.

So I was on the train from Thursday at midnight until Monday at 4:30 am (Moscow time). Irkutsk is five hours ahead of Moscow, so I think I'm pretty much as far off Eastern Standard Time, my native time zone, as it is possible to be. Physically, I felt like a bag of trash when I got off the train this morning, but now, having checked into my hotel, arranged for some laundry to be done, napped, shaved, showered, eaten some pizza, drank some Coke, and taken a walk in the fine Siberian weather, I feel almost good. I still have a bit of a headache, but it is not intolerable.

I was met at Irkutsk Station by a young guide working for Baikal Complex, a local travel company. He shook my hand, introduced himself, and even welcomed me to Siberia, which was a shock and a breath of fresh air after the brisk treatment I received from the local operator in Moscow. He had my ticket to Ulaanbaatar with him, eliminating the need for me to struggle with the local phone system tomorrow. The guide sat with me in the back of a van and answered my questions as I was driven to Hotel Angara in the centre of the city. We dropped off one other traveller first, at a homestay, and the driver ran into the house and came back with a 5-litre jar of honey. It was the most honey I had ever seen in one place. The guide came into the hotel with me and facilitated the check-in. Hotel Angara is the most Western-feeling place I've stayed so far, which is kind of nice at this juncture, because I'm feeling a bit fragile after that long train ride, and not in the mood for weird hotel-related ordeals. It's a big place, with several restaurants, a currency exchange, and even a casino. I have no plans to go into the casino - on a trip like this, there are lots of other ways to be suddenly and thrillingly parted from your money.

My plan is to go to Listvyanka tomorrow and see Lake Baikal, the "Pearl of Siberia." Listvyanka is a village right on the lakeshore, about an hour's drive from here - apparently it's quite easy and affordable to take a mini-bus there and back, as long as you start the return leg by 6:00 or 7:00 pm.

Based on only a few hours of experience, I really like Irkutsk. It seems like a literate and cosmopolitan place, but it's not as intense and exhausting as Moscow - the pace of life seems to be slower. With 600,000 people, it's only a fraction of Moscow's size, and of course that helps. Lots of trees and green space on the route I walked today. My Lonely Planet book says that Irkutsk used to be called "The Paris of Siberia."

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Explanations

Thanks to Varske for letting me know that this word "remont" means "repairs." It was driving me crazy. I kept seeing the word everywhere, and couldn't figure out what it meant. At different times I guessed "sale," "detour," and "caution," but none of those seemed to work for all instances.

For those who asked, when I say "floor mistress," I mean the woman who is in charge of housekeeping, room keys, and other matters for a specific floor in a hotel. She is the ruler of the floor. I dealt with the floor mistress when I wanted to get my laundry done, and we didn't have an easy time understanding each other. I'm honestly relieved that I have no floor mistress to worry about for the next few days, although I suppose that a good relationship with the provodnitsa on the train is just as important and possibly more important.

Supermarket

I've noted in my paper journal and here on my blog that Russian police officers only seemed to be approaching and checking the documents of travellers who looked somehow "non-European." I'm happy to report that the pattern is not as strong as I had feared - I was stopped tonight on Tverskaya and asked for my passport. The police officer looked to be about twenty years old, and he saluted me first off as required by the regulations. He was courteous throughout, and the whole thing took maybe two minutes, but he confused me a little by asking for my "hotel guest card." I shrugged and showed him my room key, with the name of the hotel printed on the keychain, and that seemed to satisfy him.

Visited the Kremlin yesterday. I didn't even really want to, because my tolerance for museums and museum-like environments is low, but I'm glad I did, because parts of the complex are actually very green, peaceful, and park-like. In addition, I took some pictures of architectural details that I think will turn out quite well. I did not pay to go inside the Armoury, nor did I do any of the other "extras" you can do while at the Kremlin. I'm not really the sort of person who wishes to be awed and humbled by jewel-encrusted thrones; I'd rather look at graffiti.

Also yesterday, I dropped into the storied Hotel Metropol and had a drink. Rasputin is said to have eaten here, Lenin to have made speeches here, and part of Dr. Zhivago was filmed here. Most importantly, however, part of the action in William Gibson's latest novel Pattern Recognition is set here. It's all marble, crystal chandeliers, and supercilious waiters in fancy jackets. I was afraid that the security detail wasn't going to let me in, so I put on my best world-weary and entitled-to-everything demeanour as I walked in, and there were no problems at all. After my drink, I purchased some postcards at the gift shop - reproductions of old Soviet posters. My favourite one shows a despondent man with his head in his hands. The text, when translated, reads: "Oh no... I behaved like a swine last night because I was so drunk... How can I look people in the eye today?" I know that this is what it says because the cashier had a little booklet with all the English translations.

Went on a boat cruise today along the winding Moscow River with my new Irish friend, Mary. Three teenage Russian girls sat on the upper deck close to us, and they spent much of the time photographing each other and squealing with delight at the little digital display on the back of the camera. I noted, not for the first time, that Russian girls seem incapable of simply standing normally and smiling when their picture is being taken - they must, must, must strike a dramatic high-fashion pose. St. Basil's Cathedral in the background - strike a pose. Aeroflot billboard in the background - strike a pose.

Have now consumed two cans of this beer called "Efes." I think it's pronounced YAYF-yes, but I'm happy to be corrected. Both cans were consumed while sitting quietly in the wonderful public space with benches and flower beds not far from the statue of Marshal Zukov on his horse. Somehow, the enormous Rolex billboard dominating the sky to the east only added to the experience, reminding me that time waits for no man, gather ye rosebuds while ye may, and other proverbs on the subject of time.

Discovered, quite by accident, a terrific supermarket today. I spent half an hour stocking up on food and drink for my four-day train trip to Irkutsk. I bought the following: bread, cold meat, cheese, Pringles, Twix bars, a Toblerone bar that is big beyond all sense, different kinds of fruit juice, bottled water, and Diet Coke. I have already been warned by various parties to eat the meat quickly. Having just finished reading King Rat, a novel set in a POW camp, I am particularly mindful of the importance of having enough food. In the book, hunger makes people do terrible things to each other. At the checkout, I realized somewhat guiltily that my bill came to more than many Russians make in a month. It makes my mind reel. The Lonely Planet guide warned me that Russia's extremes of wealth and poverty "might be upsetting," and that's definitely true. I hope that ten or twenty years from now, there will be a much more equitable distribution of wealth in this society, with help extended to its most vulnerable members, and economic opportunities available for anyone who seeks them. From my admittedly uninformed perspective, it looks like there is a long way to go.

I realized something important on my way from the supermarket back to my hotel. It takes all my brainpower to navigate the subway system here, and when I'm required to multi-task - say, when I have to look after three or four grocery bags as well as my own body - my navigation skills break down badly. What should have been a twenty-minute trip became forty-five minutes because I kept missing my stops, walking down the wrong tunnels, and standing on the wrong side of platforms. When I don't have any grocery bags, I usually get things right the first time, transferring from line to line to line like a local. Kind of.

There were raggedy-looking stray dogs in Vladykino Station today. Some were sleeping, and some were barking.

Someone has requested that I turn on the RSS-thing for this blog. I will turn it on if I can. I don't know how to do it. I'll go into my Blogger settings - maybe it's just a box I can check or something equally simple. I'm not exactly a sophisticated web guy.

Thanks to Andy for the information about Starbucks in Russia (see his comment on an earlier post). For the record, I get my caffeine from Diet Coke - the earlier in the morning, the better. Thanks also for everyone's birthday greetings.

I don't plan to come into the centre of the city tomorrow, so it's unlikely that there will be a new post on the blog. I have to be at Yaroslavl Station tomorrow night by 11 or so, and then I'm on the train for a long, long time. I hope to be writing to you from Irkutsk on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. Until then, please take care of yourselves.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Eagles

I just had my picture taken with two gigantic eagles - one perched on each of my outstretched arms! They were heavy! Their claws were sharp! I wish I could share the pictures with you, but they were taken with the SLR.

The photographer was Mary, a fellow traveller I met this afternoon in the Time Online internet cafe. We were both using the phones at Time Online, and gravitated toward one another as speakers of English. Mary is from County Clare in Ireland and is also doing the Trans-Siberian Railway, passing through Mongolia to Beijing like me, although she's on a much different schedule than I am and is stopping at more points along the way. Her trip also differs from mine in that she started in Estonia, and she has no definite date for returning home - she may visit Tibet and Nepal eventually. As most of you are aware, I'm on a fixed schedule and have to start my new job almost immediately after returning home.

In other news, yesterday at the market I bought three lemons for 10 roubles. The woman had a plastic bag full of lemons, and she was just standing there looking sad, quoting the price over and over to passers by. I have no need for lemons, now or in the foreseeable future, but I couldn't resist her low-key sales pitch, the sheer emotional appeal of it, and the price was definitely right. If I thought the lemons would appease the floor-mistress at my hotel, and repair our relationship, I would give them to her as a gift, but I don't think they would be enough. It might be construed as an insult. I may have to go nuclear and give her a gigantic Toblerone bar.

Thank you to everyone who's dropping by the blog, reading and commenting. It makes everything much more fun and meaningful to be able to describe it to you and hear your thoughts.

I left the hotel 11 hours ago, not really knowing what I was going to do today, and here it is time to go back and sleep. I'm curious about the bar/club-thing on the first floor of the hotel - maybe I'll investigate it. Surely it couldn't be very busy on a Monday night, though.

Blessing

I have just come from being blessed by an Orthodox priest standing on Tverskaya, one of central Moscow's busy commercial streets. The blessing cost me 10 roubles. I have determined that Saturday, my first day here, was a rough day because I was wearing my watch on the wrong hand - my left hand. To wipe away that bad luck, I purchased the blessing.

Some observations about advertising... Motorola is in the middle of a huge outdoor advertising campaign for some new model of cell phone. Everywhere I go, I see the same girl with a smug look on her face and a tiny cell phone in her hand - staring at me from every bus stop and billboard. Salma Hayek has a high profile, too, appearing in outdoor ads for Avon make-up. Finally, I was surprised and amused by this anti-smoking poster I've seen twice in the metro here in Moscow: an attractive young woman lies on the ground, being straddled and strangled with both hands by another attractive young woman dressed up to resemble a giant cigarette. I can't read the text perfectly, but I think it says simply, "Cigarettes choke you," or "Cigarettes kill you." I'd like to take a picture of it for my friend Tim, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan who does research on tobacco marketing and public health issues, but whenever I see it, I'm on one of these gigantic escalators descending into the depths of the earth, and there's no time.

I arranged to pick up my onward train ticket. Two employees of Olvita Travel, the local affiliate of Sundowners, met me on the steps of the Central Telegraph Office to deliver it. Tanya and Alina were very friendly, and I ended up going across the street with them to a pancake restaurant. Their English, particularly Tanya's, was very good. They gave me a lot of valuable information about Moscow, including their opinions on the most interesting and beautiful metro stations, which Tanya circled for me on my Moscow metro map. We also talked about the Russian language, and I had them critique a couple of my key phrases, both of which, as it turned out, needed some tweaking in rhythm and pronunciation.

I'd like to just clarify something about the "wad of bills" incident the other day, for anyone who was worried about me. At no point did the two guys do anything menacing, and they never touched me. They were trying to trick me, and it just didn't work. I hope that I do as well the next time.

I wandered around the Kuznetsky Most area today - one of the upscale shopping areas of the city. I guess you'd say it's like the Yorkville of Moscow. I was curious about it, because it's symbolic of the huge changes in Russian society, I suppose, and I also wanted to go because there's an English-language bookstore there. I needed to stock up a little to be ready for my big train ride, so I bought American Tabloid by James Ellroy and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I've already finished Idoru and Virtual Light by William Gibson, and at the pace I'm going, King Rat by James Clavell will be just a happy memory by tomorrow night.

While on Kuznetsky Most, I saw a fancy black sedan pull up to the curb outside a bank, and a large bodyguard-type person in a suit escorted an older man inside, all the while swivelling his head around scanning for threats. This wasn't remarkable, by any means, but it reminded me that the private security industry must be huge here.

Some of you have asked when I plan to post some pictures on the blog. The truth is, I've been using my conventional camera rather than my digital camera so far. That may have to change, though, because the SLR with its big zoom lens gets way, way too much attention, as my mother predicted it would. Not so much in Red Square, where everyone has a camera, but at the market by Izmaylovsky Park yesterday, people were walking by and craning their necks around to stare at it. It freaked me out. Sometimes, there's an image I really want to capture, but I elect not to bring out the camera simply because it would change the atmosphere and put people on their guard. I'm not even talking about photographing sensitive subjects - I mean anything. Sometimes it's a relief to be in a heavily-touristed area, because at least there I can shoot pictures without being isolated by the act. The other difficult with posting pictures to the blog is a more practical one; I need to be able to plug my camera into the computer, and most internet cafes are just not set up to make this easy. You've just got a screen and a keyboard - no USB ports in sight. Maybe I'm missing something obvious.

I saw another person selling puppies and kittens on the street today. Unlike the people I met in St. Petersburg, though, who seemed to be having fun, this woman looked miserable and desperate. If you're having trouble picturing this or putting it in context, imagine someone sitting on the sidewalk at Yonge and King in downtown Toronto, outside of Starbucks, with a beaten-up old cardboard box filled with kittens and puppies.

Speaking of Starbucks, why are there no Starbucks locations here in Russia? Not that I'm complaining - I don't even drink coffee. It just seems weird: McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Louis Vuitton, Gwen Stefani, Black Eyed Peas, but no Starbucks. Maybe research indicated that they wouldn't be profitable.

I was pleased to discover a sort of mini-mall beside the metro station near my hotel. It will be a good place to provision myself for the train. Tanya and Alina advised me to use caution when buying food off the train platforms along the way, because it may not be sanitary. My train to Irkutsk leaves this Thursday the 25th.

So far in Moscow, the things I've seen and the encounters I've had by accident have been a lot more fun and interesting than the ones I tried hard to find or plan. After that first day, it's been fairly relaxing here, and the city is not as I pictured it at all. I thought that what architectural beauty there was here would be compromised or spoiled by the presence of all kinds of ugly, Soviet-style concrete office blocks and apartments, but that's not the case - at least not in the core of the city. There aren't as many big grey monoliths as you'd think. Things hang together; the city has its own coherent personality that I'm learning a bit about each time I go for a walk.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Thirty

Well, well. We've come to it at last - I'm no longer a dude in my twenties. I seem to recall an episode of *Friends* in which Joey contemplates his fast-approaching 30th birthday and cries out to a higher power, "No, no, God - I thought we had a deal! Take the others! Not me!" Thankfully, I don't feel quite that level of anxiety. If you're thinking to yourself, "That show sucks," I'm not disagreeing with you, but I remembered that bit of it today.

I've been in Moscow since 8 o'clock this morning, and it's making a terrible first impression on me. Truly terrible. The guy who picked me up at the train station, holding a little sign that said "Hunter" on it, didn't say one word to me as he drove me to the hotel. He never said one little word. Not even "zdrastvuitye" - hello. Then, my heart was in my throat at check-in because the reception person had trouble finding my reservation. Thankfully, she eventually found it, stuck in a folder filled with crumpled, coffee-stained faxes. Then, after settling into my room, I asked the floor staff if it was possible to get a little laundry done, and judging from their reaction, you'd think I had asked them to design and build a space station for me. I think they were irritated because the day's laundry had already been done, but with the assistance of my phrasebook (it has paid for itself 100 times over), we agreed that I would pay 300 roubles and my laundry would be ready tomorrow evening (zaftra vecheram).

Then the really bad thing happened. After taking the subway into central Moscow and wandering around Red Square and the surrounding neighbourhood for a while, I was in one of the underground crosswalks and became the target of two thieves. They tried to pull the "wad of bills" scam on me, but I had read about it previously in the Bryn Thomas guidebook and instantly knew what was going on.

Let me describe the events for you:

I'm walking through the tunnel. It's very crowded.

Ahead of me, a guy (let's call him Short Guy) appears to accidentally drop a wad of US bills.

Another guy (let's call him Tall Guy), walking beside me, scoops up the wad of bills, turns to me with his eyebrows raised and says in English, "Hmm... How about we split this fifty-fifty?"

Me: Nyet.

Tall Guy: Oh, come on. Free money.

Me [trying to walk away from him]: Nyet, spasiba.

Tall Guy [following me]: No, seriously, we'll split it.

Short Guy [comes back with fake look of alarm on his face, looks at me]: Excuse me, sir, but I think I dropped my money... Did you see any money? I'll give you a reward.

Me [strenuously trying to get away through the crowd]: Nyet. Nyet. Nyet.

Short Guy: But sir, please, help me, help me find my money. Where's my money

Me: Da svidanya. Da svidanya.

Short Guy and Tall Guy [talking at the same time now, hemming me in]: C'mon, c'mon, friend...

Me [getting angry]: Atyebis! [fuck off]

Me [pointing at each guy in turn]: Vor [thief]. Vor [thief]. Da svidanya.

I walk away. I turn back to point at them one more time. They are standing together, talking. They obviously know each other, are working together. They both wave at me and smile. I go up the stairs and onto street level, leaving them behind.

The scam, apparently, involves some pretext whereby the mark (here, me) is required to get out his own money, at which point one of the guys would either grab it outright and run or stealthily take it. I'm not sure how they planned to get me to show my own money - Bryn Thomas wasn't entirely clear about that.

So anyway, I came away unscathed, having performed a little better than I did in Las Vegas that time with the whole "Dance Away Illiteracy" situation. Not quite as gullible now.

Over the next few days, I'd like to do the following: go inside the Kremlin; go to the big outdoor market; stock up on supplies for my Trans-Siberian train ride; go to the expat bar run by Canadians; jhave a drink at one of the fancy historic hotels; and view the Metro stations that are especially beautiful.

My hotel is not in central Moscow. It's eight stops out on the grey line of the Metro, in an area that reminds me of Jane and Finch. Lots of high rises; lots of pavement; decrepit, depressing businesses lining the streets; lots of traffic noise. To be fair, the area has quite a lot of trees, and is not entirely unpleasant. My hotel is itself a super-bland high rise, about 20 years old - a real contrast to the place in St. Petersburg, which was old and rickety and full of character. My room is small and clean, on the sixth floor. The hotel is very close to a Metro station, and it was easy to buy a subway card with 20 rides on it, for 195 roubles (about $8 Canadian), and zoom into the heart of the city, where I promptly got lost for half an hour before recognizing the Kremlin and orienting myself to it.

I'm missing all my friends and family and Jess today very, very much. I'm going to try and make some phone calls while I'm here at "Eastern Europe's biggest internet cafe," on the basement level of a shopping mall next to Red Square. I've noticed a bunch of things about Moscow so far, but they'll go either in my journal or in a future post, because I'm feeling tired all of a sudden and think I'll go back to the hotel.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Money matters

I've had such amazing weather here in St. Petersburg. Sunny but cool every single day.

I thought I'd write a bit about the prices of things. I stopped into a store this morning and bought a can of Diet Coke and a bottle of water, which came to 27 roubles, equal to $1.15 Canadian. The fee for storing my bag in the storage room at the hotel was 10 roubles, equal to 42 cents Canadian. I asked the cleaning staff to do a small load of laundry for me, and that was 200 roubles, or $8.53. An hour of internet time costs 80 roubles, or $3.45. A five-minute taxi ride cost me a flat fee of 450 roubles, or $19, although it should be noted that I got the taxi in front of a fancy hotel and was certainly charged a serious premium for being a foreigner. You might say, "Why did you even take a taxi?" The answer is that I didn't know that my destination - the Artillery Museum - was so close by. I would have walked had I known. I definitely got hosed on that taxi ride, but you'll be proud to know that I bargained the guy down from 500 to 450. A local would probably have paid some fraction of that. So, some things seem really cheap to me, and others seem on a par with Canada, and still others seem ridiculously expensive.

I'm leaving St. Petersburg tonight for Moscow, and I thought this would be a good time to learn a new set of words and phrases. Here are the ones I'm interested in memorizing: enough, more, less, too much, now, later, also, where can I buy ____?, I like ____, yesterday, today, tomorrow, this morning, this afternoon, tonight, now, later, can I have smaller bills?, what does ____ mean?, I'm here on vacation, hungry, tired, hot, cold, milk shake.

A few minutes ago, I saw the police questioning a young man with black hair and a dark complexion. I wonder if they're always on the lookout for terrorists from Chechnya and other breakaway republics - probably. The police tend to walk around in little groups of three or four.

I noted with some amusement that the text in my official St. Petersburg guide pamphlet gives the credit to Russian for the invention of both the airplane and the radio. There is nothing I can do to straighten this out, however, because I am leaving the city today.

Saw some butterflies yesterday. Very unusual colouring, or so I thought.

Today will be a pretty quiet day. I don't want to visit any more museums, so the plan is just to drink beer at an outdoor cafe, read my book (Virtual Light by William Gibson), change some money, and maybe go on a boat ride up and down the canals. I have to make sure to leave enough time to get back to the hotel, get my bag, and take a taxi to the correct train station for 11:00 pm. I want to be there an hour early to compensate for any screw-ups.

Walking by the river yesterday, I noticed that every few blocks, there is a stairway that leads right down into the water. I mean, the waves are lapping on the actual stairs. For some reason, I find this creepy. Maybe it's because the water is very choppy, with big waves, and it doesn't look inviting at all. I imagine it's quite polluted, also. I haven't seen anyone swimming in it, despite the beautiful weather, although I have seen a couple of people fishing off of bridges.

It's occurred to me several times over the past few days that there's a real trade-off when you travel alone. For sure, there's no compromising, and you're getting a more immersive cultural experience, but there's also no sharing. I do miss my people back home and wish I could share some of these experiences and feelings with them. I never entertained the possibility of signing up for one of those Trans-Siberian group tours for younger people, like the ones organized by Sundowners, but I can see the upside - the other people on the tour are like ready-made friends, so you're never at a loss when you want to go out at night and talk to someone.

Yesterday at the military museum, I saw a man who looked exactly like Samuel Beckett. He was in charge of the coat check. I suspect it really was Samuel Beckett, having faked his own death years ago and slipped away to St. Petersburg in order to avoid the unwelcome attentions of the world. Certainly the coat check man was a somber old fellow, with a profound burning stare, like all the photos of Beckett that I have ever seen. I looked in the museum shop for civil defense materials from the Cold War era, for my friend Matt who is professionally interested in these matters, but there was nothing.

You may be interested to know what I've been eating for breakfast at the hotel restaurant. I have not tried the mush, or the hard-boiled eggs, or the weird flaky pastry thing. Every morning I have eaten the same thing: three pieces of cold meat and three pieces of cheese, made into a sandwich on rye bread, along with two apple slices and three orange slices.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Bear cub

I saw a bear cub on a chain today on Vasilevsky Island. She was playing with a discarded shopping bag, breaking off only briefly to chase a crow for a short distance. I think the owner said her name was "Gosha," and she was five months old.

I also saw a hydrofoil. It zoomed right under the bridge I was standing on. I think that hydrofoils carry passengers routinely between St. Petersburg and Helsinki, Finland. I was in Helsinki once, fifteen years ago, but did nothing and saw nothing. I was not at liberty.

The Central Naval Museum afforded me some fine picture-taking opportunities - pictures of nautical things. Also, I have a new appreciation of the Russian (Soviet) efforts during the Second World War. The museum proudly displays photos, paintings, weapons, uniforms, models of ships, and other artifacts and records recalling Soviet naval victories over the Nazis, including propaganda posters of burly, steely-eyed Russian sailors storming beaches and bludgeoning hapless German soldiers with their rifles. There is a glass case containing a few of the many Nazi flags seized by the Soviets, and a really interesting mural showing a 1945 victory parade during which Russian servicemen threw the captured Nazi flags in a heap before an approving audience of senior commanders and political leaders.

I don't think I mentioned it before, but there is a lot of renovation going on here. It seems like every second building is covered with scaffolding. It's not surprising, really, because almost every building in the Nevsky Prospekt core area is a beautiful and ornate heritage building with a lot of potential. Some of them have already been restored wonderfully, or were never allowed to fall into disrepair in the first place, but many, many of them are stained with soot and looking generally crumbly and seedy.

My train leaves for Moscow tomorrow night at 11:59 pm.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Another hard bright blue northern sky

St. Petersburg has these impressive skies, or maybe I'm imagining it

I've come to the conclusion that I can't possibly blog about everything that I'm seeing, hearing, saying, and doing. Why? First, because if I scribble something in my trip journal, I'm not going to want to type it out for the blog. Second, because although internet time is affordable here, it does cost money. Third, and most importantly, because time spent blogging must be balanced against time spent in bloggable activities.

Some notes:

St. Petersburg has a lot of wrought iron. Gates, fences - things like that. Lovely.

Could have easily bought a kitten or a puppy last night on the street, but didn't. Would have been a very impractical decision - possibly the silliest decision of my life, given where I am and what I'm already contending with. Did, however, corral several kittens who were trying desperately to escape their cardboard boxes. I consoled myself with the thought that I will buy a lamb or a baby goat in Mongolia to keep me company on the long jeep rides.

Visited the Hermitage Museum today. Not unlike the situation with the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the building that houses the exhibits is at least half the attraction. The Hermitage is located in the magnificent and huge Winter Palace, former residence of the Russian royal family. My saturation point for museums, and in particular art museums, is about an hour and a half, and sure enough, at that mark I felt completely burnt out and dazed, having walked through countless rooms and beheld countless paintings, sculptures, etc. I paid a small extra fee to be able to bring my camera inside and take photos. Got some great stuff, I think - some amazing stained glass that I hope shows up well in the pictures. I'm very thankful for the big zoom lens that my parents gave me last Christmas - it came in incredibly handy today. My favorite parts of the Hermitage dealt with Russian history, in particular the conflict with Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. I loved looking at all the letters, artifacts, portraits, and uniforms from that period.

Mom and Megan would like me to buy them each a set of Russian dolls. I came across a souvenir market today and realized what a daunting task this will be. There is so much choice that it's absolutely paralyzing. I'm going to wait until Moscow to buy the dolls, but I used today as a kind of test run. The same market had a couple of stalls featuring hand-carved wooden chess sets and hand-painted metal chess sets. Some of them were very beautiful, but I reminded myself that I don't really need another chess set, already possessing two, and anything I buy will have to be transported, and handled carefully, across several thousand miles. As Jess will remember, I drove both myself and her crazy in the summer of 2003 trying to protect this little architectural drawing I bought in Paris from being bent, creased, ripped, or otherwise damaged during our travels. It became an obsession.

After a series of humiliating defeats, I finally managed to make a phone call, and someone from Escape Travel met me in the lobby of the Astoria Hotel to give me my train ticket to Moscow. I was getting a bit stressed out about it yesterday and this morning, but it's over now, and hopefully I won't have to tangle with the phone system again until I get to Moscow. That Astoria Hotel sure is luxurious, and the staff are so friendly and helpful, even to an obvious non-guest like me. The street in front of the Astoria is choked with glossy black luxury sedans.

A couple of people have told me that my Russian is good. I interpret this to mean, "Your pronunciation of a very limited number of Russian phrases is good," because I couldn't have a free-flowing conversation in basic Russian to save my life. I think I can offer a useful tip to travellers whose knowledge of the language of the host country is, like mine, comprised only of a small stock of phrases and vocabulary words: speak confidently, even if you don't know what you're doing and are completely out of your depth. I suspect that many early efforts by travellers to speak an unfamiliar language go badly because the speaker speaks too quietly, too slowly, too quickly, or with a really tentative intonation. Any one of these things, and any combination of them, send signals to the listener that the communication is of low quality and can be disregarded. This may happen consciously or unconsciously. If you speak confidently, however, and look people in the eye, the subtext or implication is that you deserve to be understood. If they reply in rapid and incomprehensible Russian, the illusion of competence on your part is ruined, but you can always pull out that tried and true phrase, "I'm sorry, but I don't understand you. Do you speak English?" I think I've said that fifty times since arriving here.

Today I've been trying out the polite form of "I want" - the Russian equivalent of "I would like." I was reluctant to get into it, because there's a letter in one of the words that I have trouble pronouncing, but the reception has been positive. I remember the reception being positive when I used the polite form of wanting things in Castilian and Catalan during my trip to Spain in 2002. Another recommendation, I guess.

Ate breakfast this morning in the hotel restaurant to the sounds of Green Day.

You might say that eating at McDonald's while visiting Russia is "cheating," and that a traveller should strive to eat authentic local foods, but my response to that argument is a) your concept of "authentic local food" is artificial and flawed to begin with, a mere reification, incompatible with the reality of globalization, and b) when you're over here alone, shivering with culture shock, there's a very strong urge to reach for the familiar. I expect to be in McDonald's in fifteen minutes or so. It's just down the block.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Nevsky Prospekt

I'm in Russia! Can you believe it?

I'm writing to you from a large and fancy internet cafe on Nevsky Prospekt, the famous and beautiful main thoroughfare in the city of St. Petersburg. It's an absolutely beautiful day, and I'm feeling pretty healthy, happy, and energetic, considering the adjustment that my body is making to this time zone (8 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time). The flights from Toronto to Amsterdam and Amsterdam to St. Petersburg were uneventful... I wrote some impressions about the flying and the airports in my journal, but there's nothing that needs to be shared urgently here.

Hotel Neva, my home for the next few days, is a good example of the faded glory that seems to characterize much of St. Petersburg. So many attractive and stately but dingy buildings - long blocks of them stretching in every direction. It actually reminds me a lot of Madrid, architecturally. I'm not a very sophisticated observer of architecture, so that comparison may not make a lot of sense, but it's what comes to mind. My hotel room is small and narrow, with a very high ceiling, and a window that opens onto an interior courtyard. It's incredibly quiet. The bed is a little twin with a slightly warped mattress and a scratchy blanket on top of the sheets.

I just got in yesterday in the early evening, so I haven't had much time to do anything yet. Last night, I just registered my visa at reception, settled into my room, and went to sleep, victorious at having negotiated in Russian with a taxi driver at the airport and having arrived at the hotel without being robbed blind. This morning, I showered off the trans-atlantic travel grime of the previous 24 hours, went downstairs for my complimentary breakfast, and changed some money across the street. I've been walking around, exploring, for the past hour or so. At breakfast, I noticed that most of the hotel guests are older people. I thought it would be crowded with vigorous young go-getters like myself, but no.

This is a shameful admission, I know, but I haven't brushed my teeth for quite a long time, because I'm afraid to use the tap water. I know I'm not supposed to drink the St. Petersburg tap water, because of the parasite that lives in it, so I figure that I probably shouldn't put it in my mouth at all. I bought some bottled water (butylka vady) to take back to the hotel as a solution to this problem. On the same note, I didn't drink the "juice" at breakfast this morning, because it looked like some kind of Koolaid-type beverage that was probably made using tap water. I don't want to get sick if I can help it.

The bathroom in my hotel room is literally one big shower stall. The whole room is tiled, with a drain in the floor, and there's no division between the area with the showerhead and the rest - e.g. the sink, toilet, etc.

Today I just want to explore and maybe take some pictures. My plan is to go to the Hermitage tomorrow, and then the next day go to a couple of the military museums. Maybe I'll do some kind of a canal cruise - I just don't know. A big part of the fun will be simply going into restaurants, bars, and shops, interacting with people, trying to communicate.

I find it hard to believe that my trip has finally begun. The imagining and planning of it went on for so long - an entire year. On some level, I think I suspected that a problem or situation would arise and prevent me from doing it, or at least from doing it on this scale, in the way that I want. Here I am, however.

I owe thanks to George Willett for giving me some roubles before I left. I couldn't get them in Amsterdam, and the booth at the St. Petersburg airport was closed, so I'm not sure what I would have done without those blessed bills. Now, of course, I'm all set.

I made three failed attempts to use the phone in my hotel room this morning. I was trying to call my parents and assure them that everything was okay. I will keep trying and report back on my progress. My cell phone has service and a strong signal, which is great in principle, but for some reason I can't send text messages, which limits the usefulness somewhat.

Something that struck me... A woman, a street sweeper wearing an orange nylon vest, walked past me this morning as I waited for the currency exchange place to open. Her broom was not the kind of broom we're used to in North America - the mass-produced kind. The business end of this broom was a mass of twigs tied together to the handle. It looked like the kind of broom a witch would carry. I was very interested in it. Someone made this broom by hand.

I saw some uniformed young fellows on Nevsky Prospekt who I took to be naval cadets, and I noticed that they each carry a cool-looking sailor's knife in a brown leather sheath. I considered asking them if I could take their picture, but I just wasn't feeling courageous enough at that precise moment. I know what to say, though, when I do decide to ask someone: "Mozhno vas sfotografiravat?"

Monday, August 08, 2005

Countdown

My flight is in six days, and I'm 99.9% ready to go. I wouldn't normally be so on the ball, but my family and I are spending this week at a cottage far from Toronto, returning only the day before my flight, so I was forced to complete my preparations early.

Things to tell you about:

1. Last month, I went on eBay and bought a British gas meter key, which allegedly will lock and unlock compartment doors on the Trans-Siberian train. When it arrived, I was surprised to find that it was made of bright yellow plastic -- it doesn't seem like a real key at all.

2. I found out that my Boojum guide and interpreter in Mongolia is named Ariunjargal, or Ajgaa for short. I sent her an email but haven't heard back yet -- I think she's out in the countryside leading trips right now.

3. I have a feeling that the footwear I own now will be sadly inadequate for serious horse riding. I may have to buy some proper riding boots in Ulaanbaatar.

4. I'm pretty sure (knock on wood) that I have arranged my financial affairs in such a manner that I will not default on any obligations while I'm away. I learned a painful, stressful lesson about this when I was in Ireland two summers ago.

5. I bought some no-name Pepto Bismol stuff for my trip, thinking I would save some money that way. Big mistake. It tastes disgusting and promises to make me more nauseous, rather than less nauseous.

6. I picked up all my tickets and other important papers at Trek Escapes the other day. I would happily book another trip through Tom Gehrels and Trek Escapes in the future, having received such excellent service and advice. We discussed a Patagonia/Antarctica thing, for a couple years down the road.

7. Unfortunately, I happened upon a story in the Globe & Mail about someone backpacking through Russia who got chloroformed and robbed in her hostel room on her first night in Moscow. Sigh. The thieves were kind enough to leave her passport, though.

8. The Japan bookings are all made, and I am now the owner of a 14-day Japan rail pass. I'll be staying mostly in traditional Japanese inns called ryokan. I made all of my Japan bookings except one through this great website called the Welcome Inn Reservation Center (free), and a Japanese-speaking friend made the last booking for me, at Ryokan Rikiya in Tokyo, over the phone. That place comes highly recommended but does not belong to the Welcome Inn Reservation Center system.

9. All of my packed belongings smell like bubble gum because of the large quantity of gum I'm taking overseas to give away to kids. You know -- that pink, loses-flavour-instantly kind.

10. It's likely that you won't hear from me again until I'm in St. Petersburg, but there's always a chance I'll write from Amsterdam or even once more from my parents' house here in Ontario.