Finding Nemo

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Russia: First Impressions

A Ruskaya Redhead
Women hair cuts are uniform: bangs just above the eyes, long straight hair. I call it the Ruskaya. Fake red hair is quite popular.

Men. Sorry, but the only word that comes to mind is... dorks. Uniform goofy short hair cuts, almost in a military style. Gold chains. Adidas, adidas and more adidas. And they don't like guys with long hair and beards unless they are an orthodox priest.
Admit it. I could pass for one

Irkutsk and one of many many intricate flower parks
Flowers. They like 'em. Everywhere. Shocked at how bright and pretty and leafy and pleasant the town was. Somehow I expected Soviet gray depression everywhere, but here in Siberia it was White Russians, who largely escaped Stalin's attempt to eradicate beautiful architecture.

Cyrillic. Not so bad, especially after Mongolia I can kind of read it. Its Greek letters really. Cyrill didn't too much to them except add some embellishment and curly bits.

See, let's play:


OK guess what this means. You can almost sound it out. After a few vodkas it's easier to see what "Bodka" translates to.

Expected a cold demeanor but everyone I met was quite friendly. Except 20-something guys. They didn't like me at all. Perhaps it was my lack of adidas and gold chains.

Women. OMG. Neck hurting. The quantity and quality are nothing like anywhere on the earth. Friendly, almost aggressive, buying me drinks.

In Russia, I am a rock star, and it is awesome.

Angelina Jolie would just seem like a typical girl in Russia. She even has the right haircut

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Nemo among the Nerpas

The gorgeous Kazan Church in Irkutsk
So I was wandering some of the more famous streets in Irkutsk, looking at the spectacular wooden mansions and beautiful churches lining the streets. Thinking how the White Russians fled here with all their wealth and education (and beautiful women) a hundred years ago, how they turned this town into a little Siberian Ayn Rand utopia. And I couldn’t stop thinking about … seals.

Lake Baikal. Does a horse need skates? pic by Matthieu Paley
Nerpas to be exact. Nerpa being the Russian word for the local lake seals that inhabit the enormously long and unimaginably deep Lake Baikal next door. (A mile deep? Really?) It turns out that the Eastern bit of Russia is actually pulling away from the rest of Asia, and the gap has become the oldest lake in the world. Which one day in the future, probably around when the Morlocks will appear, will become a new ocean.

Nerpa pup. Yes, its annoyingly cute
There is something very strange about this place, and I'm not just talking about the Shaman spirits floating around the place. It's the seals. You see, seals are saltwater creatures. They are only found in oceans. Yet, somehow, seals managed to crawl hundreds of miles to this pond. The Russians, of course, immediately made them the local mascot and set about training them for tourists.

Nerpas grow up to become tasty sausages. Pictured are Farmer John variety
I dutifully made my way to a little brick building where, along with a dozen school-kids, watched the seals blow trumpets, do back-flips, and count to 10. And apparently the trainer, who could have been a swim-wear model, made a bunch of funny jokes in Russian. Completely clueless, I decided to laugh at all of them. Probably too loudly.

As for cuteness factor, I will give the Nerpas a 9 out of 10. Nothing beats a cute little Nerpa. Except, of course, the stupidly cute harp seal pup. I mean, give me a break. Nature made harp seal pups for one reason: to break the cute meter.

Harp Seal: "Don't fight it. You love me and want to squeeze me until I poop. Resistance is futile."

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Siberian surprises


Quick! What pops into your mind? Did you say hot Russian girls who are eager to buy an American a drink? Or perhaps Siberia conjured up a warm sunny day, one where you want to strip naked. (To go skinny-dipping in the deepest lake in the world.) Or … maybe you pictured lake seals that are so damn cute that you want to squeeze them until snot comes out their nose?

Fine, fine. Neither did I. Like you, I pictured ramshackle little cottages from a Disney movie. You know, the one where the evil witch lives. It was hidden in a dark wood full of Siberian wolves and bears and there were mountains of snow piled up everywhere and maybe a boiling kettle to cook little kids in.

What I expected to find
So when the train arrived and I spilled into Irkutsk, the last thing I expected was colorful neat buildings, clean broad boulevards, and beautiful parks filled with flowers and hot women. In fact, there were hot women everywhere I looked. They were spilling out of limousines, walking arm-in-arm through the parks, giggling in packs at restaurants. Pretty soon I was wondering if perhaps on the overnight train I’d been stabbed and was waking up in Russian heaven.

Upon closer inspection, these packs of women, dressed in gorgeous dresses and make-up and followed around by photographers were, sadly, not sent down just for me after all. They were wedding parties. And they were everywhere. 

Apparently, August is wedding season and I had arrived on a fine summer Saturday where every woman over 18 was either a bridesmaid or wearing a white dress.

What I found. (from
I thought back on the Mongolian women, who, no offense, probably wouldn’t be winning Miss Universe anytime soon. And I thought of my month on horse-back surrounded by flies and muck and eating… pretty much flies and muck. And I looked at this sunny town, full of pubs and vodka and restaurants and discos and neat pretty wooden houses, where the parks brimmed with roses and cleavage. And I thought: Siberia. I think I love you.

Worm-Holes on Earth

George Takei would approve of this fruity wormhole. Oh my.

What is a "border?" They often so randomly placed that it feels like some bureaucrats had lunch, pulled out a napkin, and started scribbling on a cartoon map. (What's that? This is how the Middle East was drawn up? Explains a lot...)

It always feels to me very weird to cross them. I mean, the earth is the same, the air is the same. But because the earth has been partitioned, fenced off, and jealously guarded by each of its warring tribes, you have to walk past guards with machine guns, barbed wire fences, and smile nervously as an underpaid man looking for a bribe scrutnizes why your passport photo has no beard and your first name was stolen from a Disney movie.

You walk the 100 feet or so, through a no-man's land which on paper doesn't actually exist, temporarily exiting the world into a limbo fuzz. Finally, you emerge through another gate, where another set of underpaid guards hold up your photo and point at your beard again.

But suddenly, just over that short distance, everything has changed. The guards speak a different language, dress differently. The cars are nicer, the road looks better paved. You enter a restaurant, and instead of your usual hot noodles with disgusting coffee, they have steak, pasta, real espresso and chocolate! The toilets are sit down instead of pits. They might actually even have free toilet paper. The signs go from an unintelligible scratch of random lines to an unintelligible jumble of Greek letters.

The faces go from big, square, and flat, to western-looking, with light skin. Instead of the uniform black hair and brown eyes, people have light eyes and purple and red-dyed hair.

You spin in a circle, taking it all in. You may have only walked a few hundred feet, but that 100 feet might as well have been a worm-hole to a another universe.

That about sums it up

Mongol Merchant Train

All aboard the Communist Express!
I was flying. Below me, a rumbling volcano spewed flame. The cloud of ash and fire rushed towards me. I flapped my arms, trying to get away, but the cloud was too fast. It engulfed me, and I began to tumble.

I opened my eyes, and realized I was getting shaken awake. Above me stood a tall man in a dark green uniform. A military man.


I rubbed eyes and sat up. Two other Mongolian women shared my sleeper car, and looked on in disgust as I flopped around in my underwear trying to find my pants. Eventually I managed to find my passport.

The man added it to a tall stack and left. My phone said 2am. I realized we must be at the Russian border. My trans-Siberian journey was about to begin!

And with that, I immediately fell back to sleep. I was flying again, or trying, when suddenly I started falling. The ground rushed up at me.... and I woke.

I was being shaken awake again. This time by a tall man in a dark suit and tie. He was white, which was strange. I hadn't seen a Western official in months. His face was rough like an old boxer. He stepped back, then pointed at me. "You. Come."

The Mongolian women looked at me and shrunk away. And I decided it's never, ever, a good thing to be woken on a train in the middle of the night by a tough man in a dark suit who tells you to come with him.

The cold night air hit me in the face as I stepped on the platform. It was too quiet. The massive dark-green train sat waiting as I followed the man to an office. Inside it was almost a cartoon. A balding overweight Russian bureaucrat looked at me, then shoved a fat finger at my passport.

Shit. Was my Russian Visa no good?

"Mongolia visa not good." He pointed at the Mongolian stamps. US Citizens had 30 days in Mongolia. I realized I had stayed 31.

1 extra day = 100 extra US clams
"Fine is $100 American dollars." He pointed outside the office to a waiting row of ATMs. Holy hell, what a great system. I tried to get out some cash, which of course did not work. Luckily I had an emergency stash of $100 bills stashed in one of my bags. I explained I would have to get some money from my stuff.

The bureaucrat checked his watch and looked up in alarm. "Fast! Train leaving!" The conductor motioned me to run. I jumped down to the platform and promptly rolled my ankle, rolling on the floor. But if I didn't get the money, in a few moments everything I owned in the world would soon be speeding off to Siberia without me. So, I hopped and skipped in agony back up the train, down to my compartment, ripped open my bags, tore apart my secret envelope with about $800 in Franklins in front of everyone, hopped back off the train, up the platform, and spilled into the office once again.

The bureaucrat changed the money, and began stamping and signing and stamping again. He honestly was trying to hurry, and hilariously began to sweat from the effort. He probably spent most of his day watching Russian sitcoms. I looked out the window. The conductor was waving frantically. And then, without warning, the train suddenly began to lurch forward.

You know that feeling when you are sitting in a roller coaster just as it begins to freefall down the first big hill? That's what I felt.

Then my passport was being shoved into my hand, and I ran/hopped as fast as I could. I caught up to the door and the conductor grabbed my arm and pulled me aboard, as we both fell inside. He looked mortified. I started laughing. And then he started laughing, shook his head, and said what I'm pretty sure was "govezla dermo."
Lucky shit.