Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Day in HEL

That's HEL (as in Helsinki).  Started out the trip to the former Soviet Union on August 2 and we flew into Oakland on the budget Allegiant flight from Eugene.  Our tickets on Finnair involved a nonstop to NYC, then onto Moscow with a connection in Helsinki.  Since the Russia trip didn't start until August 4th, we killed a couple of days in SF, with a great meal at Hunan's with old friends, then rested up for our flight by pretty much taking the 3rd off with only a small jaunt into nearly Burlingame.  Flight to JFK was uneventful, but we were delayed 90 minutes taking off for Helsinki.  With only a 35 minute transfer window in HEL, we knew we were in trouble and the connection stress was not ameliorated by the two screaming children across the aisle who pretty much screamed and cried through more than half the flight.  It would have been worse if I hadn't slipped some benadryl into their sippy cups.  At least the meal merited attention as one of the worst meals I've ever eaten on a plane.

Upon landing in HEL, we watched our Moscow flight taxiing onto the runway.  No help at all from Finnair regarding whether they would hold the flight or what would happen.  Obviously, they didn't hold it and the next flight wasn't scheduled for 9 hours.  They were nice enough to give us 70 euros for food, but 70 euros didn't go very far in the airport.  After our nine hour wait, we were further delayed by 90 minutes.  The Aeroflot flight was short and pleasant enough, though some of the other passengers were a bit unruly.  We touched down, cleared immigration quickly and proceeded to hurry down to collect our single bag.  We were in a hurry since the apartment rental agent in Moscow agreed to meet us late into the evening and we did not want to inconvenience him any further than we already had.  I rushed out to get some rubles while Suzee waited for the bag.  After a long wait, I had to sneak back into the baggage area to find out what was going on, since I had the luggage receipt.  Turns out the 10+ hours Finnair had to get our bags over to Aeroflot wasn't enough.  In fact, of the five passengers who flew into HEL from JFK, none of us received our bags.  Pathetic, Finnair, really pathetic.   Meanwhile, the clock was ticking and I was asked to fill out three copies for a claim, one of them in cyrillic.  I don't do too well in cyrillic and apparently the baggage claim staff doesn't have a copy machine.  The stress was mounting after 32 hours with no sleep and I was lucky that the customs guy (who stamped our forms) only jerked me around for 15 minutes.   We sprinted to the Aeroexpress train only to find we missed it by 2 minutes.  This involved a 28 minute wait and, worst of all, by the time we got to Moscow, the subways had stopped running.  Most guidebooks have two rules about taxis in Moscow:  1) Try not to use any taxi that isn't called by your hotel and 2) Never take a taxi at night.  Thankfully, Alexander, the apartment manager surprised us by showing up at the station and helping negotiate a cab to the apartment.  We finally arrived around 1:00AM, roughly 11 hours late.  This was my single worst day ever in travel, between the unexpected layover, screaming kids and lost luggage.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Better Red Than Dead

Funny how those in my age group were brought up in an atmosphere of total fear that the Commies were always on the ready to blow us up.  And in that event, we diligently practiced diving under our desks when the teacher yelled "DROP!" as though those little desks might have made the difference between life and death.  Thinking further about those drills, they were surely as bad as any propaganda we accused the Russians of creating.

After getting 5 hours sleep on top of the 30+ hours awake on the travel day(s), I took a walk around the neighborhood while Suzee slept.  "I'm in Moscow!", I thought and it seemed such heady stuff.  Our apartment building is one of Stalin's Seven Sisters, which were skyscrapers built in the late '40s and early '50s to bring Moscow up to international standards (or whatever Stalin conceived "international standards" to mean.  We're about two blocks from the American Embassy and it's rumored that the KGB kept close watch on the Embassy from upper floors of our 25 story building.

It's as cool as it looks, though definitely dated in the common areas.  Our landlord's assistant, Alex, informed us that one bedroom apartments in this building sell for around $600K thus placing it at the level of pre-war NYC apartments.  Our place has been remodeled in part but they left the original herringbone flooring, doors and 13' ceilings with beautiful crown moulding.  Our 8th floor location keeps us somewhat insulated from traffic noise and the subway is right across the street, allowing for quick access to almost anywhere in central Moscow.

I headed down to a grocery store about a mile away and stocked up.  Some Cyrillic is easy to understand, but for the most part I had to rely on visual aids to figure out what to buy.  Grocery prices are comparable to US prices, but eating out tends to be a lot more expensive.  Not many here speak English, so most of the time you're on your own as a traveler and a good phone app in both English and Cyrillic is a necessity in managing the subway system since there are almost no signs in English.  I've been making up names for stations based on Cyrillic lettering that has a few English-looking letters, thus a station with a 20 letter name that begins with PY becomes, "Don't sigh, eat Pie" station.  Our station is bapp.  The subway system here is amazing with beautiful, clean stations and trains that run every minute or two.  Have never experienced such short waits and it's a good thing because the cars are packed and getting to sit down is a rare bonus.   Distance between stops is lengthy, so location of accommodation is crucial.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Out On The Town

The late arrival our first day (which was supposed to be a rest day) put a bit of a crimp in our plans, but we gamely headed out early to visit the Kremlin.  Had planned to see the Armory Museum first (Faberge eggs are the biggest draw) but due to a scheduling conflict, wound up spending the afternoon doing the architectural tour, which means we walked around inside the Kremlin and visited the various churches and chapels.  Lots of pushing and shoving in the ticket lines and quickly learning this is a country where sharp elbows and quick reflexes come in handy.  Must go back to the days when people queued up for hours to buy a couple of lemons.  Historically a mind-blowing area as we wandered about the chapels of Ivan the Terrible and various Tsars with buildings and fortifications dating back to the 14th century.  Suzee's pedometer indicated that we walked over five miles and my morning walk and grocery store trip added another five to my daily total, leaving my feet screaming for an ice bath.

The following day we managed to get tickets for the Armory which is within the Kremlin walls.  The museum consists of artifacts collected by the Tsars, including the famous Faberge Eggs.  The museum offered a fantastic collection of jewelry, clothing, dinner ware and carriages, most all of which were gifts from other countries.  After the Armory, we took a stroll through Red Square where we encountered some famous historical figures:

Then it was on to the famous GUM department store before heading back to the apartment completely wiped out.  Heavy touring and an 11 hour time difference do not make for optimal travel, but essential to see the sights prior to the World's Championships which tend to leave little time for anything but track and field.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Back In The USSR

Highlight of the trip so far was Thursday's visit to Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square.  Having already seen Mao some years back, the goal was to capture the Big 3 dead guys and Lenin completes the second of the cycle (bummer that Uncle Ho was under restoration when I was in Hanoi a few years back).  The lines were long but moved quickly, the only hassle being that everyone had to check both cameras and phones (apparently Lenin is camera shy).  Along the walkway to the mausoleum were numerous gravesites of Soviet dignitaries not deemed important enough to be buried inside the Kremlin.  The viewing was like an out of body experience.  In a dark, dimly lit room, there lie the architect of Communism, Soviet style.  Walked as slowly as possible, but the guards assure that one receives only about a minute of viewing time.


Not being content with a mere visit to see Lenin, a few days later we headed over to Novoridichy Cemetery for a look at Khruschev's grave.  This cemetery is quite distant from the Kremlin and served as a spot to put Khruschev out of sight after his death in 1971.  The cemetery was closed until 1987, presumably to keep the public away from the disgraced former leader.  The grave site is now a popular tourist destination among those who remember growing up under the evil shadow of Khruschev.  Was tempted to take off my shoe and smack the grave with it.

 After a gander at Lenin, it was off to Kitai Gorod for a stroll through the old "Chinese" quarter.  In fact, the area was never a Chinatown, but rather the living area of some of the wealthiest Muscovites.
This area is a bit off the beaten tourist path, thus was relaxing and uncrowded.  Saw several old mansions owned by the Romanov's and various banking families and also took a stroll past the famed Bolshoi Theater before lunching at Teremok, a popular local fast food joint specializing in blinis which come either sweet (think blintzes with various fillings) or in the form of what might be called a Russian burrito with various meat and veggie fillings.  They're sizable, delicious and cheap at around $3-4 each, thus very popular among students and the working class.

We've eaten at several Russian restaurants, mostly those specializing in Georgian cuisine which is considered to be the best of Russian cuisine.  Some of the dishes are surprisingly hot and spicy and I was surprised by the liberal usage of cilantro in many dishes.  The old standards like chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff were nowhere to be seen, but I sampled several delicious stews and one strange, but tasty. appetizer that involved tree bark.  Have also enjoyed eating at a chain called "My My", pronounced "Moo Moo", where very good dishes are served cafeteria style; another popular spot amongst the budget conscious and there's one right across the street.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The World's: Moscow 2013

The main motivation for this trip was to attend the World's Athletic (Track and Field) Championships which are held every other year in odd-numbered years. Previous World's have involved trips to Edmonton, Berlin and Daegu, with future trips to involve Beijing and London.  A good way to combine travel with sport.  This year's event was held at Luhzniki Stadium, just south of the Moscow city center.  Luhzniki was site of the 1980 Olympic Games, so there was a bittersweet vibe entering the stadium which should have hosted the US team in 1980.  Luhzniki seats approximately 80,000 for soccer, but with large press sections and tarped-off areas, the seating for the World's was probably less than 50,000.  Tickets for the 9 day affair were a very reasonable $200 and when ticket sales didn't approach expectations, the daily prices were lowered to as little as $3 for a morning session and $10 for an evening session, thus assuring the Russians of a stadium that looked reasonably full.  Putting fans into the seats was also a problem in Daegu, but the Koreans had to give away tickets and bus school and church groups to the stadium.
Day 1 AM Session--Where is Everyone?

Ash Prepares to Long Jump

The stadium was convenient to two metro stops and the commute from the center of town to the stadium only took about 30 minutes with half of that walking from the subway to the entrance.  Typical of these events, the first day was poorly organized with bad security communications (some folks were allowed to bring in cameras, others were refused, others were told they needed a special sticker, the sticker people refused to give stickers out for small cameras and numerous other small hassles that showed the lack of planning that's rarely evident at the Oly Trials, for instance).  At the end of the session they mistakenly asked everyone to scan their tickets for re-admittance, even though the session was over.  This created a huge back up of folks trying to leave the stadium and was only resolved when attendees started screaming at the security force.  And speaking of security, there is no lack of police presence in Moscow; the stadium area looked as though they were expecting soccer hooligans with hundreds of well-positioned police and military all around the stadium.  Perhaps they were right since once tickets were almost given away, the typical fans that showed up were rather boorish, screaming for their favorites when the starter's gun was up and cheering the failures of opponents.  All in all, very distasteful to the real track fans.  I started silently rooting for Russians and Ukranians to not qualify for finals.

One of the most glaring inadequacies of the meet was the lack of daily programs for the general public.  While the press got a nicely bundled daily program, the rest of us had to resort to begging the press for copies, sneaking into the press areas to grab one or hoping to get lucky and snag one of the very few that found their way to the public information booth.  While the data signals were generally good enough during the daytime sessions to pull up startlists on a mobile device, there simply wasn't enough bandwidth to do so in the evenings.   A dozen of us were interviewed by a local AP stringer and complaints about lack of programs topped the list of what we didn't like about the meet.

For the most part, the ushers inside the stadium were very kind and with a smile, anyone could move from section to section to watch various events.  Anyone who has seen a track meet in a huge stadium knows that it's almost impossible to watch every event without a lot of moving around.

My group of 13 independent travelers (meaning we were too cheap...make that thrifty... to pay the fees charged by the Track and Field News tour) included folks from the US, Sweden and Australia.  I was kidded for wearing Duck gear almost every day and rooting for the Republic of Eugene and its associated runners.  This sat well with the Aussies and Zoe Buckman, at least.  Meanwhile, the Track and Field News tour group sat a few meters away, many with obstructed views as a result of TV platforms being built after the seats were sold.

As the meet progressed, the small crowds from the opening days became larger, possibly due to an influx of cheap seats being dumped at the last moment.  Security remained tight and entering the subway after the meet involved going through a 100 meter long human funnel formed by police and police on horses.  At least this prevented stampedes at the station entrances.  We got smart and found an alternate station about the same distance from the stadium, but with 1/10 the traffic of the main station.  One night the organizers decided that the crowd would be held in order to force people to stay for medal ceremonies.  In our section, three security personnel linked arms at the tunnel and tried to prevent thousands from leaving.  While we foreigners were yelling to "Let us out!", Russian fans started beating on the guards and several fistfights broke out, one involving a woman.  Suzee and I managed to escape during these fights before more security was called.  Others wound up trapped in the section for 30 minutes until they were allowed to leave.

I'll refrain from discussing individual events, since all that info is available elsewhere.  Like Daegu, however, my best highlight was seeing Centro get a surprise medal.  Another highlight was getting to talk with Ashton the day after his gold medal win; happy to report he's still the same really nice guy he always was.

Given the inability to put fans into the stadiums the past two years, Lanana's seemingly wild idea to bring the World's to Eugene seems less far-fetched.  30,000 fans at full price would surely generate more revenue than the giveaways of the past couple of Worlds.  I realize that there are a lot of other issues involved (expanding Hayward Field, hotel rooms, government support), but it isn't such a crazy idea as some of us thought several years ago when it was first broached.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Moscow Wrap Up

Final tourism day prior to the World's Athletic (Track and Field) Championships involved yet another walk from the Russia Walks book.  This time strolled along the old Arbat and new Arbat Streets.  The old Arbat area dates back to the 16th century making it one of the older sections of Moscow.  The street is off-limits to vehicular traffic and is a popular strolling spot amongst locals and visitors.   This is an area full of artists (mostly bad) hawking their wares, cheesy tourist shops, Hard Rock Cafe, beggars and buskers.  Pushkin lived in this once-Bohemian area and his apartment is now a museum.
Perhaps the highlight of the walk was a visit to Gorky's last residence, a home built in 1900 for a Russian banking family.  While he wasn't involved, the place looked like Gaudi had a hand in the design and it's very possible the architect had similar influences.  It should be noted that Gorky was embarrassed by the over-the-top design and luxury of the house which was chosen by the government for him.

Pete Townsend Reduced to Playing for Quarters in Moscow

While I surely wouldn't want to live here (too crowded, too cold in winter, not very friendly), as a visitor it's a great place to spend three or four days exploring the fantastic history.  The food was good for the most part and getting around on the metro was easy, despite the crowds.  I'd definitely recommend a visit, but not a lengthy one.  The next post will involve attending the World's, which ends today (Sunday).  Then we'll be off for a few days to the Golden Ring area N of Moscow after which we'll overnight on the train to St Petersburg before heading home.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Golden Ring

Left the apartment in Moscow on Monday morning for the train station on the other side of town.  Fortunately the metro wasn't too crowded as we manipulated waaaay too much luggage up and down escalators and flights of stairs.  Arrived several hours early and used most of it to pick up onward tickets from Vladimir to St Petersburg.  The glacial speed of the lines made even India seem hasty and organized.  The air conditioned, very comfortable train left promptly at 2PM and we were in Vladimir 1:45 later, with the train reaching speeds of 99 MPH (they had a little gauge mounted in each car to indicate our case, 160KPH).  Our hotel, the Hotel Vladimir was advertised as being near the station.  It was but what they didn't mention is that the trek is straight uphill for about 1/4 mile.  After settling in to a room the size of a small closet, I took off for a stroll around town while Suzee nursed a cold.  Managed to catch a Russian Orthodox mass in the main cathedral (Assumption Cathedral, 1158); I loved the pageantry  This part of Russia is very flat, though the town of Vladimir sits on a plateau above a river and there's a popular pathway that allows locals to stroll and check out the river valley view.  The path ends near the old quarter, which includes some charming restaurants and shops as well as one of the original town gates and what's left of the ramparts.This gate was the Eastern town exit along the road to Siberia.  Not a pleasant site for political exiles.

Vladimir Cathedral of the Assumption
The Golden Ring consists of a series of towns NE of Moscow, all of which played an important role in the development of what is now Russia.  Several of the towns were capitals of the entire country. The capitals changed as various rulers and sons of rulers moved about.  Vladimir is caught between being an ancient city and modernization; because it has a rail line and various industries, it's no longer the small village it once was and visitors would do well to stay near the center where the history of the town is celebrated.

I got up very early the following morning and took a local bus about 10 miles to the dusty little town of  Bogolyubovo (got a nice ring to in, no?).  The main attraction is a World Heritage tiny cathedral, the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl.  Some consider it the most perfect church in Russia.

Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, Bogolyubovo

Suzdal View from Hotel
  Getting there involved a mile walk along a cobblestone path through a field and I was lucky to be alone on this short hike.
 Next, it was off to the second and final Golden Ring stop, the town of Suzdal.  Suzdal is considered THE destination of the Golden Ring.  The railroad bypassed the small town of about 15,000, thus it was never industrialized and managed to retain its village charm.  Tourism is the main industry now and weekenders flock here from Moscow to enjoy "the old Russia".  Fortunately, they haven't Disneyed it too much, though many roubles have been spent restoring the 40-odd churches around town.  Our three days in Suzdal offered a respite from the Moscow crowds and while I've seen enough Russian churches to last a lifetime, it was pleasant to walk the quiet streets of the town.  One continuing problem has been dining out.  Few places have menus in English and few people speak English here, thus the choice of restaurants becomes very limited and we've found ourselves eating at the same places more often than we would have liked.  While I was able to easily eat in restaurants far off the beaten path in rural Laos last year, its become a huge challenge in Russia and reminds me of traveling Eastern Europe some thirty years ago, before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Difference is that I could usually get by with some German.  Not here.   Grocery shopping is equally difficult unless the products have pictures.  The simple task of buying spaghetti sauce is challenging; got lucky yesterday when I found a promotional pack of spaghetti attached to a jar of red sauce. 

OK, the one on the left is easy, but what's in the other two?

After a leisurely three nights in Suzdal, it was back to the bus station for the trip to Vladimir where we'd catch the night train (Raleigh, Carolina!) to St Pete via Moscow.  Unfortunately, the train wasn't nearly as nice as the commuter we'd taken earlier and I can't say that it was even favorable to Indian sleeper trains, since there was no a/c.  Acceptable enough, however and even managed to sleep about 5 hours prior to arriving in St Petersburg at an ungodly 5:40AM.  Both still nursing colds and the pace is starting to wear us down.  Lots to see the next couple of days.