Archive for April, 2008

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Break in Transmission

April 29, 2008

Hi all — sorry for the radio silence over the past few days. We’ve been struggling a bit with internet access in Russia, it’s pretty lousy. We have posts and photos ready to go, and we’ll get them up as soon as we can.

PS We’re currently in Ulan-Ude, the capital of the (semi-?)autonomous region of Buryatiya, in Siberia just around the enormous freshwater Lake Baikal. Pretty neat!

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April 22

April 23, 2008

We decided to get out of Vladivostok today and see a bit of the surrounds, so woke up extra early to get the first ferry to Russky Island. We arrived at the Russky dock at about ten o’clock to see about seventy return passengers be let out of seven-foot high metal fencing like inhabitants of a concentration camp and swarm toward the boat. After collecting some supplies from the small ticket office we headed off up the dirt roads to climb the hills looking for fortresses, with which the island is suposedly replete.

If Vladivostok looks neglected, then the scenery on Russky island is downright post-apocalyptic. Despite the amount of unused land, we passed three long, six-storey fibreboard apartment blocks and a number of older brick buildings, the group of which seemed to house most of the residents of the island.

As we climbed further up the hill, the buildings started to look more and more derelict – firstly rusted storage containers, then recent-looking buildings with crumbling plaster and broken windows, then those missing roofs. At the crest of the hill, where there’d recently been large-scale burnoff, stood a series of ruined walls and buildings. The visual effect of looking past the black land against the once white walls and dead trees to a deserted bay below was spooky.

We departed on the one o’clock boat and stood on the deck to admire the view. Five minutes into the trip, a man wound down his window and asked something casual in Russian, to which I used the stock-standard reply of “izvinitye, ya nye gavaru pa Russky” (I’m sorry, I dont speak Russian). After a brief look of surprise, he said in good English, “sorry, I thought you were Russian. Your husband looks just like a Russian boy”, and proceeded to explain that, other than our clothes which he thought was strange, we both looked very in place, which might also explain why we get asked so many questions and get our outfits stared at so much. He then asked a lot of questions about Australia, particularly what the churches were like and how many Christians (by which he meant Eastern Orthodox) there were there.

Arriving back in Vladivostok with a large chuck of afternoon left, which we decided to dedicate to buying train tickets. Next to the incredible efficiency of the train system in Japan, the Russian system is a bit lacking. None of the times, destinations or prices of the trains are advertised anywhere, so you have to queue at a ticket counter and try to express your requirements to the ticket dispensing lady, who then tells you which train she thinks is most appropriate and charges an “information” fee before running a paper ticket through an antiquated machine, which you are left to decipher.

Expectedly, few people at the ticket counters speak English, so we wrote down our intended destinations and the times of the trains we wanted in Cyrillic. Things were going quite well until one of the legs cost twice as much as expected based on a friend’s tickets and we found ourselves short in the rouble department. After receiving a sound yelling-at in Russian, we changed some more money and found a much more helpful ticket-dispensing lady for our second leg. After all of this, we opted for an easy evening of 28 rouble burek and a bottle of beer for dinner in the hotel room.

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April 21

April 23, 2008

The contrast between Vladivostok and everything we saw of Japan is stark, and probably worth discussing. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where so much has been run down and left to rot … this city is a capital of decrepitude and decay. There’s life here as well, but this place feels like it’s renewed itself as a frontier town, as it was a centupry ago in the few decades after it was founded during the Tsarist expansion eastward.

The fire escapes are rusting, the toilets are overflowing, the roads are cracked and pitted. Manholes are left open, empty lots filled with rubbish and old buildings are descending rapidly into condemnation.

In Japan, the civic-minded atmosphere was palpable, although civic-mindedness doesn’t really cover the sense of responsibility the people there feel towards public spaces and the environment, which I suspect has a religious element. You found yourself walking long distances carrying a bag of rubbish, because in Japan, wastebins are more or less unnecessary (in other countries, they’re needed to help the citizens fend off their inclination to litter). The force of civic rectitude was strong enough that councils could decorate twenty-four hour subways with framed artworks, and strong enough that when I left my wallet on the bus I knew there was a better than even chance I’d get it back.

In Vladivostok, there are bins in all the public spaces. It’s like the anti-Japan.

Max has already commented on the fashion sense in Vladivostok, which is peculiar. Young men and women are all eager to accentuate their gender roles. The women wear tight jeans or short skirts, stilettos, and jackets and all sorts of blingified accessories – dodgy D&G sunglasses, fancy handbags, and so on. The men push towards one of three archetypes, aiming to be the thuggiest, sportiest or most executive. Mullets are common, and some streets are like a Stephen Kernahan lookalike contest.

When you combine these on-the-make looks with the obvious effects of economic depression – whether they were caused now or earlier I’m unsure – it gives everything an air of quiet desperation. Someone told us that if Russian women aren’t married by twenty-five, then it can be “hard to find someone”.

Today we slept in and wombled down to a large buffet breakfast around ten o’clock. We really overpaid for this hotel when we pre-booked it through three or so middlemen, so we intend to milk the free stuff for all it’s worth. After cleaning that up, we tried to visit the Arsenev Regional Museum, but it was shut, so we took a tour of the S-56 WWII submarine set up on the foreshore. The sub’s interior was partly remodelled for the exhibits, and the more interesting bits were the cramped, unmodified areas towards the rear. God I’d hate to spend a week in one of those things! We traded in some Australian currency (leftover change) for a Soviet military pin with the souvenir trader at the backdoor, who was also a coin collector.

We visited the tsar’s mini triumphal arch, took a ride on the funicular railway up to the most horrifyingly rubbish-piled and stray dog infested university forecourt you can imagine, checked the ferry times to Russky Island for tomorrow, wandered back to the fairground for an icecream, and then stopped by the Vladivostok Fortress Museum, an interesting historical record of the defences of the city stored in a refurbished gun battery on the top of the peninsular hill.

Once upon a time, Vladivostok really was Russia’s first line of defence in the Far East, back when Japan was menacing east Asia with gunboats and Russia’s Chinese and Korean borders were still disputed. The city has a proud military history, but it’s evident that its practical relevance as a military base has greatly diminished in the last fifty years. In 1996 the Kremlin disbanded the last garrisons out here.

We are probably booked in for a couple more days here than we strictly need to be, and are rapidly running out of big-ticket sightseeing expeditions, but it’s relaxing.

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April 20

April 21, 2008

The waveform has collapsed and left us squarely in the 1980s. Everywhere I look, tall, metal-tipped stiletto heels end legs encased in tight stonewash jeans or latex pants, bejewelled jackets are obscured by multi-layered hair, bleached and teased to within an inch of its life. And for the gentlemen, mullets, black leather jackets (preferably studded) and black-and-white camouflage pants. Welcome to Vladivostok.

The city itself is very beautiful if you don’t look down. Founded in the late 1800s, Vladivostok is built on a miniature peninsula of sorts, and runs up and down a decently-sized hill from one bay to the other. Beautifully decorated old buildings are interspersed with crumbling Soviet housing towers and evacuated apartment buildings, all piled one atop the other up the hillside. When you look where you’re walking, you see discarded cigarette butts and beer cans littering the street and piles of trash accumulated in what once was intended to be a garden.

We had a fairly easy trip through customs in the end, though it somehow involved lots of typing, a phone call and a trip next door to the manager’s office on behalf of our customs officer, which was enough to inspire some nervousness as to whether we’d be allowed in. After we were through, we checked into our rather nice hotel with a promise to meet Kirrily, Monika, Sacha and Oliver later underneath the Lenin statue. The hotel is built into a cliff face, so the top floor (floor seven) lies just below street level. The only sign of the place from the street is a stained glass entry tower which houses a set of stairs leading downward. Our room is on the third floor and overlooks the Amur bay. It’s quite pleasant, if a little old, with wooden floors and a creaky old door leading to a balcony.

At two o’clock we met up with the others and hired a couple of rowboats out on the bay, which was quite fun, though the unevenness of the oars on our boat meant we could only go in loose circles. There was a festival of sorts going on, with ferris wheels and whizzy machines, kids riding motorised pint-sized vehicles, fairy floss, icecream and popcorn and the ever present beer. Drinking laws are incredibly lax here and there doesn’t appear to be any licensing at all. You can buy a beer for 20 roubles (around $1) from the same cupboard-sized street store that you buy icecream and lollies. This leads to just about every Russian man drinking beer as he walks down the street, a lot of men drinking too much beer, and a huge number of broken beer bottles littering the streets- the foreshore in the bay seemed to contain more broken glass than sand.

Sacha had to leave shortly after the boating to return to Irkutsk, but the rest of us headed for a beer tent on the bay and quickly consumed a little more than we ought to have in our fervour for cheap drinks. Later, we found a cheap burek stall for dinner and ate some marvellous concoction of fried bread, mince meat, salad and mayonnaise before helping Kirrily kill some time before her 4am train.

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April 19

April 21, 2008

It was the Day of No Land.

Both geographically and legally, as our passports were confiscated for the journey by immigration yesterday.

After an evening in the bar yesterday, and a night of ups and downs surrounded by the creaking and groaning walls and decks of the M/V Rus, I woke feeling queasy. The sensation wasn’t eased by the smell of the drying flysheet of our tent, nor by the stale air with suspended cigarette smoke being pumped in through the ventilator.

I was determined everything would be ok, so I downed a travel sickness tablet and we went upstairs and outside to grab a breath of fresh air. My stomach was gurgling constantly, the reactive result of pouring in two bottles of watery Russian beer and shaking slowly for ten hours.

On our return to the cabin, the real nausea hit, and I vomited slightly in the bathroom. But the antihistamines from the meds were kicking in and I soon fell soundly asleep.

I remained abed for almost the entire day, although by lunchtime I was feeling so much better that I was able to eat all the food. But the drowsiness from the tablet was strong enough to knock me out until about six o’clock. By the time I regained consciousness, the ocean had flattened out into near lake-like conditions.

We skipped dinner in favour of some okaki we’d brought with us from Toyama, the same delicious type as the camp-jo lady had given us, and holed up in our cabin with an episode of a documentary series about extreme weather conditions. Afterward, we watched the sun set over sea to the horizon in all directions with our non-Russian traveller buddies Kirilly, Monika and Oliver (who was wearing a Donald Knuth t-shirt) and the almost absurdly enthusiastic Ermina.

This is the longest boat ride I’ve been on, and in fact I’m quite certain the last time I slept on a boat was on the Irish Sea car ferry from Holyhead in Wales to Dublin back in 1987. Being at sea for more than a couple of hours definitely renews one’s respect for sailors.

The M/V Rus is a strange vessel. It was built in Poland in 1986 (Oliver speculated darkly that it might have been during the Walesa Solidarity strikes), and is in only a moderate state of repair. It was a hell of a shock boarding yesterday, as if there is one thing this boat is not, it is Japanese. I wonder if it has ever had any Japanese passengers, as there are none on board at present and none of the staff are Japanese either. From the kitsch music – Russian house music in a mid-90s style mixed with Boney M. style stuff — playing in the seamy “music saloon” to the trans-Russian strongman competitions showing on TV, it’s like we’ve already made port.

This evening, the largish troupe of school aged Russian dancers who are returning to Vladivostok on this ship put on a show in the bar for the entertainment of everyone aboard. It was great fun in the oddest way, a bunch of – to put it bluntly – Russian goons hired to drive imported cars on and off the ship looking on as a group of teenage girls danced traditional Armenian and Ukrainian dances as well as ballet, country, and their choreographer’s somewhat ethnographically inaccurate interpretation of a geisha dance. Everyone was having a great time.

The parents of the dancers seemed pleased by our having befriended Ermina, and we received a huge plate of sliced apple from their table as well as a Vladivostok fridge magnet and some Alyenka chocolates. Judging by the etiquette section of our guidebook, this practice of inundating each other with small gifts is an important part of Russian social life. Although we’d presented Ermina with a toy koala the day before, we were seriously out-gifted.

After the dances were over, we were surrounded by a gaggle of the teenagers, who via Ermina quizzed us all about our lives, interested in the relationships between us (they had assume we were all travelling together), and what things are like in other countries. And how long I had to spend trimming my sideburns, and what pop music we liked, and so on. It was pretty hilarious, and continued for over an hour. Fortunately the Swiss Monika, who has quite decent traveller’s Russian, was able to field most of the questions.

This strange time-distorted sleep middlemarch between countries ends tomorrow, when we step off the Rus and onto Russian soil, at least after the immigration formalities are complete. Seeing how relatively unprepared our fellow travellers are, I’m feeling a fair bit more sanguine than I have at other times about whether or not we might get sent back. But the Russian border authorities are both more stringent, and more capricious, than those of most nations. They are conducting random investigations of all Swedish tourists at the moment in case they are spies, for example. But I’m sure it’ll all be fine, and as our Vladivostok accommodation is conveniently sited, I expect by midday tomorrow we’ll be checked in and getting our teeth into the Russian mainland.

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April 18

April 21, 2008

This trip just took a turn for the kooky.

We boarded the good ship M/V Rus in Fushiki atabout 1.30 this afternoon, and it was suddenly instant Russia. There was about a twenty minute walk from Fushiki station to the port and not a Japanese person to be seen, instead the port area was filled with Russian men importing Japanese cars. Russian is the language of the ship, and a quite regular interruption over the PA could easily be saying either “the restaurant is now open for lunch” or “the ship is sinking, run for your lives”.

A little about the ship – it’s stuck firmly in the past, though it’s difficult to say exactlly where in the past. Heavily patterned carpets and fake wood panelling abound. Long corridors are regularly punctuated by numbered doors, the occasional open area contains a leather couch facing a mirror. The upper decks are the entertainment decks, and house the restaraunt, bar, music saloon, casino and other various seating areas, replete with photos of dolphins, embossed ceilings and pipe lights. Combined with the pitching and rolling against the waves and complete lack of ventilation, the place is disorientating.

We met an Australian neuropsych student (Kirilly) and a Swiss primary school teacher (Monika) shortly after boarding, and collected a German network administrator (Oliver) a little later, and I’m fairly confident we’re the only non-Russians on the boat. After immigration formalities to officially leave Japan, we set sail around 6pm. A bit later on, we were checking out where everything was when a lovely Russian girl named Ermina sat down next to us, smiling profusely until we said hello. She had some basic English, and told us that she was accompanying her little sister’s dance troupe, who had just performed two shows in Japan. We were shown through the photo album, having the name of each dance roughly translated into English after hurried conversations in Russian between Ermina, her sister and her mother. The troupe where all between five and eighteen years old, heavily made-up, and costumed in a range of styles including ballet, Armenian, Russian and, obviously Ermina’s favourite given the enthusiasm with which she pronounced it, country.

The sheer volume of food on the ship is amazing. Each meal consists of a salad of some description, followed by a bowl of cabbage-based soup, then a garlic-laden main of rice or potatoes and meat. Dinner additionally has a cake and a cup of tea. These being the first vegetables I’ve caught sight of since leaving, I’m quite enjoying it.

In another interesting factoid, this is the only stage of the trip that we lose time, despite sailing west. Vladivotok is two hours ahead of Toyama, and the time zone was changed very hurriedly the second we set sail, as if everyone was extra eager to be back in Russia. A few puzzled enquiries as to why the timezone was changing in the wrong direction brought Oliver to explain that Vladivostok is acually the same timezone as Japan, and that one of the two hours’ difference was the product of daylight savings and the other the product of Soviet pride. Apparently, the Soviet Union, shortly before their demise, brought all of their time zones forward one hour so as to be ahead of everyone else. Make of that what you will.

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April 17

April 21, 2008

I’m typing on the mini-notebook under the barbecue shelter at the Hamakurosaki kyampu-jo (campsite), listening to the persistent drips of rain from the pine tree canopy above onto the shelter’s tin roof. It’s about eight o’clock at night.

Our little DMH Derwent Hikelite tent is holding up very nicely, despite the slightly slapdash manner in which we erected it – the fly is well separated from the tent itself, and nary a drop of rain has penetrated it. It’s been raining for most of our day, and I suspect it has been raining for most of the day in all of Toyama prefecture – at least where it isn’t snowing. And there we segue neatly to the activities of the day.

After more faffing around with the “business” of travelling this morning, posting the blog, changing a bit o’ cash to yen to round out this leg at the JP office, and ensuring we’d be able to make the Toyama – Takaoka – Fushiki connections tomorrow for the ferry, we splashed out around Y6500 each for round trip tickets to Muroudou, the central destination on the Tateyama-Kurobe alpine route, which judging by the panoramic shots of incredible snow-covered mountain landscapes was set to be pretty neat. April 17 (today) was the first day it opened in 2008.

The sky was grey as the slowpoke local train left Toyama eki-mae for Tateyama, totally chug-a-lug compared to the minor JR lines, let alone the blistering Hikari superexpresses. It wound its way up the river valley to Tateyama, stopping every five minutes or so. Here, we were slightly off the main English-speaking tourist trail, so romaji (Roman alphabet) signage was limited. Fortunately, some time around two days ago I began to recover a few of my high school kana for real, and I’m now back up to about two dozen of the hiragana (Japanese basic alphabet) they use here – enough to boldly declare “the next station is Arimineguchi” and so forth. Of course, it doesn’t help that much, as in most cases every second character is kanji (a more complex Chinese ideogram) and therefore inscrutable to me. We memorise the station kanji via mnemonic — “ah, here comes the robot in the sombrero with the pitchfork one”.

The mountain riverbed was wide, and mostly empty, scored by smaller streams, awaiting the thaws that must come later in spring. Overall, just the hour’s trip from Toyama to Tateyama was filled with scenery that would cost money in Australia. As we arrived we saw our first hints of snowfall.

At Tateyama, we connected to a packed cablecar making short shuttle hops all day from the station to the Bijodaira bus station, a few hundred metres further up. The cablecar showed us enormous mountain rifts and partially snow-covered slopes, and by this stage we were beginning to get quite excited.

Bijodaira was a disastrous crammed bunfight of bus tour groups, many of which appeared to be Chinese. We were a little bit at a loss as to how to proceed around the queues fifty deep and three wide, and one Japanese girl with excellent English explained to us that she’d been told down below that a round trip to Muroudou wouldn’t really work out today, due to the lack of time. Undeterred, we pestered a station attendant who made life very easy for us – we were the first two passengers on the next to first bus up to Muroudou (and the only ones on that bus who didn’t belong to the same tour).

On that bus leg, an ongoing snow-astonishment began. The bus started out driving through sloped pine forests covered in heavy snow, but as we drove the depth of the fallen snow increased correspondingly, first to two, then three, then five or seven metre cliffs of snow surrounding us on both sides of the road, which had been cleared with difficulty by an excavator. We were travelling in a snow canyon that was at times more than twice the height of the bus, for about forty-five minutes. Amazing! At the very end of this ride, we passed through the Muroudou Snow Corridor, a snowy road gulch fully sixteen sheer metres tall. The local tourist information refers to the Otani snow region as “geographically prominent” in terms of its precipitation, which is possibly an understatement. Running up one side of the snow corridor is a calendar correlating dates with snowfall, showing a whole foot of snow accreting over a single day in several cases.

A sign had fun facts – the packed snow has a density of about 500 kilograms per cubic metre, meaning it’s very hard and practically impervious to collapse. The snow corridor sometimes reaches as much as twenty metres in height. Only the outer surface of the snow melts, so as summer advances the only change is that the corridor gently widens until its final dissipation.

When we exited the bus into yet another hot, sweaty and tour group filled mountain station, we were understandably keen to get out onto one of the local walking trails. Max wanted to see the local boiling poisonous hot spring, only fifteen minutes’ walk away. Outside, it had begun to snow heavily, cold flakes driving at us close to the horizontal, soaking everything as surely as rain over time. The temperature was just sub zero, but not too cold. We staggered along, marvelling at the white-on-white landscape. The hazy sky merged into the peaks in a seamless soft greyscale gradient, and it was hard to make out the summits anywhere where there wasn’t a handful of naked rocky outcrops to guide the eye.

Conditions prevented us from getting too close to the hot spring, so we were held back at about fifty metres’ distance. A sinister orifice pumping multi-coloured gases and effluent through the snowcap, steam rose up from it to the heights. It was a place that had a feeling of intrinsic badness about it, and it was easy to imagine it as the lair of an ogre or evil spirit.

By this stage the falling snow was reaching blizzard-like levels. I could feel it striking my face like a windy day at the beach, and all our un-waterproofed surfaces were dampening. We wandered back along the trail from the spring to the station, and got ourselves off the exposed slope of the mountain.

After getting back to Muroudou we stepped out of the other side of the covered area and wandered for a few minutes up and down the snow corridor, chewing on one of those red bean paste doughballs that are quite popular over here. Along with every other tourist, we carved our names into the snowy wall.

And then finally, after getting all our stuff back together and switching from “blizzard” mode to “comfortably heated tour bus” mode, we suffered the bus, cablecar, train, tram, bus trip back to the campsite, which took about four hours altogether when we got a couple of bad connections. Not that any of the services arrived late, that simply doesn’t happen here. After Tateyama, it was all rain.